Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum


Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum is approximately five to ten minutes by foot from Shin-Yokohama Station.

Ramen, which consists of noodle and rich soup, has continued to evolve uniquely in Japan although it was originally introduced from China. It has now earned as much popularity as another traditional Japanese dish - sushi, that is widely loved not only by the locals, but also non-Japanese all around the world. The ramen flavour and toppings varies from region to region. In the northern part of Japan, especially Hokkaido, clear chicken and vegetable based broth flavoured with salt and often with some butted added is predominant. In the south, namely Kyushu, pork bone or tonkotsu broth is favoured and it is widely known as Hakata ramen.

There are personal preferences too; some people prefer a soy sauce based soup, some like a miso base, some a salt-flavored base. In recent years, spicy flavors influenced by Korean and Thai noodle soups have come into vogue too. Then there are different things that can be added to the ramen, such as wonton dumplings, char siu (roast pork), menma (dried bamboo shoots) and so on. You can almost not find two ramen shops which serve the same bowl of ramen, as it is common for them to compete with each other over their individuality.


The main entrance to the museum on the first floor.

A ramen amusement park is where the renowned ramen shops across the country are brought together. Now, it is said there are over 20 of them nationwide. Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum (The "u" in "Raumen", referring to ramen, is intentionally spelled that way) was the first of this kind and was opened in August 1993. This unique ramen museum consists of three floors, the ground floor and two basement floors.

On the ground floor, there is a ramen gallery, where the history of ramen and its transition in Japan, the variety of noodles, soups, toppings and items such as the bowls and the cookware of ramen shops across Japan are exhibited. Well, to be honest, they are mostly boring stuff encased in glass.


A replica of a counter at a ramen restaurant.


Here are some of the implements used to strain the broth. Different sizes of bowls used for ramen are also displayed.


Basic ingredients used as the topping for a bowl of ramen.


The process of producing the ramen noodles, and there are several types of noodles, with various thickness.


Two huge steel pot, which are used to cook the broth.


A map that shows the quantity in a bowl of ramen, which differs according to regions.


My personal favourite ramen of all - Hakata style tonkotsu ramen.


A corner in the souvenir shop where visitors can mix and match the various ingredients to create their original ramen recipe.


猫ラーメンクッキー (Neko ramen kukki), which translates Cat ramen cookie. If you have never heard of Neko Ramen, it is comedy manga that centers 
around a cat (Taisho) and his encounters while running a ramen shop (check out its Youtube video). Apparently, this museum is the only place 
that sells official Neko Ramen merchandises.


The statue of "Uncle Charumera", a famous ramen trademark in Japan.

Uncle Charumera is a typical workman who pulls portable food stalls, selling ramen noodles. By the mid 1900's, these stalls used a type of a musical horn called "charumera" to advertise their presence. Uncle Charumera was born in 1966 as an advertising character of instant noodles company, Myojo Food Company (明星食品株式会社). Nostalgic melodies of "charumera" is said to have given Japanese people an appetite of ramen noodles.

Up to this section, this place seems to be just like another typical museum. The fun and exciting part however, exists on the two basement floors, that it made me putting this museum as one of the best spots I have ever visited in Japan.


A classic vending machine of Coca Cola; believe it or not, this machine is still working and each bottle of Coke is sold at ¥200.


A signboard, typically seen in train stations, which shows the Narutobashi (成戸橋) direction.

Upon getting down the staircase, visitors will get to travel to the past century.

A slightly seedy night time scene around a train station neighbourhood has been recreated to bring back the look and feel of the good old days of Showa era in the late 50's. It was the period when Japan was booming economically, yet many people still lived in small, friendly neighborhoods, children took care of their parents in their old age and kids grew up with their grandparents, and all that kind of thing, which is becoming something very uncommon in Japan nowadays.


A fake train ticket counter, with has a board listing the train ticket price from as cheap as 10 yen!

The train station neighborhood setting makes sense, since small ramen restaurants used to, and still do, like to set up shop near a train station to catch commuters passing through.

The streets and houses of Shitamachi, the old town of Tokyo of around the year 1958, looks a bit like the Forum at Caesar's Palace, or the Venetian fantasy version of Venice, except that it is late 1950's to '60s urban Japan rather than ancient Rome and so on, which pays a homage to the Showa era and ramen as well.


From a modern world in the 21st century, you come to an amazing setting of a colourful neon-lights neighbourhood.

There are nine ramen shops dotted around Tsurukame-cho (鶴亀町), Renge-cho (蓮華町), and Naruto-cho (鳴戸町), the three mythical towns of this neighbourhood. Each restaurants features a ramen dish from a different region of Japan. For visitors who wish to try multiple ramen dishes, every shops offers "mini ramen", which is about two-third's portion of the feature dish.

Tickets for the meals are purchased at vending machines in front of each stores before entering. Once the meal tickets are purchased, you get into the line that leads to the shop. You hand the ticket to the shop assistant at the entrance as she will point to your seat.


An unused post box as well as an astrology corner (usable) behind.


One of the narrow lanes at the first basement floor.


Does this traditional game remind you of your childhood days?


Down a back alley, there is a dagashi (駄菓子) shop, literally a sweet shop, which is said to be found in every towns.


Real candies, toys from the olden days, and other things such as bromides (pin-up photographic potraits) of bygone era celebrities are sold.

One interesting thing about this shop is the price. First you grab one of the plastic baskets piled up outside the shop and fill it with anything that catches your eye. You then hand the basket to the lady-in-construction (I say that because well, he is not a real lady anyway, if you get what I mean). Yuba-chan (ゆうばあちゃん) will calculate the items and you pay her the amount accordingly.

"Ichi-man-yen kudasai", or "Ten thousand yen, please". Two sweets will roughly cost you that price. That trick works most of the time as it usually gives a clueless look on the visitors' face haha! Nevertheless, Yuba-chan was obviously just trying to pull the legs of the visitors.


There are also nostalgic old-style clubs and bars, with music from the oldies running through the streets.


A telephone booth, which is no longer in use. I admire how they design the place to make it look so real.


Opps, I ter-posted a 18SX photo, didn't I? Anyway, this is inside Renge-yu (銭湯), which is actually a staircase.

There are a few spots where they will lead visitors to something which is almost unrelated at all. Besides that public bath in Renge-yu, there is a police box or koban (交番), which is connected to an elevator behind it. After experiencing the life from the olden era, one may wonder, how does the toilet look like? Is it a wooden toilet where people have to squat when they do their big business?

My curiosity brought me to look for the toilet and to my surprise, it-was-something-I-didn't-expect-to-see!


Walao-eh! The toilet looks like a toilet from a ten-star hotel man!

After going around the neighbourhood, it was time for me to feed my hungry stomach with some good ramen. Needless to say, I went for Hakata ramen. Taiho Ramen (大砲ラーメン) originated from Kurume in Fukuoka prefecture in southern Japan.

There are usually two types of seats available on every shops, namely table seats or seats at the counter. The good thing about choosing a counter seat is that you get a good view of the guys working at the kitchen behind, and perhaps learn a skill or two on the process of preparing a bowl of ramen.


Taiho Ramen specialises on tonkotsu (pork bone) broth ramen.


The broth is poured into the bowl through a strainer.


One special thing about this shop is that they serve you cold green tea instead of plain water.


I went for the set meal, which has a mini ramen (ミニ昔ラーメン), a bowl of char siu rice, and three pieces of gyoza.

The broth was indeed rich and thick, but honestly, I would not say it is the best bowl of ramen I have tasted. Probably the mayu (麻油), a blackish, aromatic oil made from either charred crushed garlic or sesame seeds added to the broth is something new to me, which I am still not used to taking. Besides, the broth had an odd fishy undertone, even though the shop claimed that they only use pork bones to make their broth. Also, the noodles were rather thick to my liking, because I personally prefer thin and firm noodles.

In a nutshell, this ramen museum is a great way to experience various types of ramen in one convenient place and to learn a bit about its history. Believe my word, it is worth your time to visit this place. After indulging myself to a satisfying bowl of Hakata ramen, it was time to return to the reality.


Time to go back to mirai (未来), or the future.

Nevertheless, whenever I feel I am getting older, I know where to go now; by traveling back the time at Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Fukuoka In Twenty-Four Hours

I was recently in Kyushu as part of the delegation from the Ministry of Youth & Sports to watch the 2012 London Olympics men's football qualifying match between Japan and Malaysia. As it was my first time to Kyushu, I was eager to spend more time there. I took that chance to extend my time there for another day, so that I could perhaps visit at least several interesting places around Fukuoka city, which was voted at 14th in 2010's poll of the World's Most Livable Cities.

I gotta thank Wei Lun (he prefers people to call him balloon; I'm not sure why, you can ask him directly if you wanna know why), who was forced to allow allowed me to crash at his place for a night. So, the first stop I made was to his place in Hakozaki.


I felt a bit weird to see JR (Japan Railways) logos in red. Unlike the one we commonly see in JR East, which is dark green, the logo of 
Kyushu Railway Company or JR Kyushu is red in colour.


Generally, the train here has not much difference compared to their cousins in Honshu.


The so-called Hakata Bay. The weather was perfect for a nice outing.

My friends and I, who went to watch the football match spent some time for some late supper the previous night. We only went to bed at almost four and we woke up barely three hours later. I was still kinda half asleep when I arrived at Wei Lun's place; so while he went to school, I did some recharging for a good couple of hours haha! I woke up fresh and was ready to explore the city. Guess what was the first stop I made?

Yes, Kyushu University haha!


The main entrance to the university, the largest public university in Kyushu.


This is the administrative building. The architecture and the palm tress make the place doesn't look anywhere like Japan.


This is a museum, where they keep all the archives of the university. Noticed the airplane at the top left? You can catch the planes like every five minutes here 
that some lecturers actually pause their lesson every few minutes until the planes fly off haha!


Another pre-war building in the campus. Kyushu University is among the top three destinations for foreign students after Tokyo University 
and Osaka University.


Engineering block. There is a reason why the building looks blackish, which I will explain below.


With Wei Lun and two of his friends, Fatma from Indonesia and Yuyu from Beijing.

From what I was told by Wei Lun (he also heard this story from somewhere and isn't sure if it is a certified explanation lol!), during the Second World War, when the US troops wanted to bomb Japan, Kitakyushu was one of their targets as it is the center for most machines. So, Kyushu Universities was chose to be made the landmark; as soon as they fly past the university, it is a cue for them that it is time to let go the bomb so as to hit Kitakyushu.

Knowing this, the brainy Japanese painted the buildings black, so that the US planes will not see them. It worked pretty well as the US troops missed out from locating the buildings and in the end, they ter-bomb Nagasaki instead.


We had Hakata-style ramen for lunch at Shoryu Ramen (昇龍らーめん). Mine was 昇龍らーめん黒, which is topped with mayu (麻油), 
a blackish, aromatic oil made from either charred crushed garlic or sesame seeds.


Rows of yatai, possibly the city's best known symbol at Tenjin area in late evening.

Fukuoka is well-known within Japan for having many yatai, a small, mobile open-air food stall typically selling ramen or other hot food like oden. The name literally means "shop stand." It can generally seat about seven or eight people and provide an atmospheric outdoor environment to enjoy various foods. In simple words, it is the Japanese version of mamak. There are over 150 yatai scattered across Fukuoka but the best place to find them is on the southern end of Nakasu.

However, one thing to be aware is that the price does not differ much than dining in restaurants; in fact sometime it costs more to eat at yatai than in izakaya. However, the main difference would be that you will have better chances to share a conversation and a few rounds of beer with your seatmates.  With the narrow space shared between customers, you can't help but strike a conversation with them.


For dinner, Wei Lun took me to join his friends at Motsu-nabe Icchan (もつ鍋いっちゃん).


Motsunabe is another popular dish associated with Fukuoka. It is a type of Japanese steamboat dish, made of beef or pork offal and some cabbage and garlic chives.


The size of the pot took me by surprise when it was served.


Spicy mentaiko wrapped with Japanese omelet (辛子明太子巻き厚焼き玉子). Spicy mentaiko is another local product of Hakata in Fukuoka.


A group photos with everyone who joined the dinner. There were three Indonesians, two Malaysians, one each from Japan, China and Brunei.

The next morning, the two of us went to tour around the city, starting with Hakozaki Shrine (箱崎宮), located just about ten-minute walk from Wei Lun's place. Hakozaki Shrine is highly ranked among the many shrines in Japan, and is one of the three major shrines of Hachiman god, along with Iwashimizu Hachiman Shrine (岩清水八幡宮) in Yawata, Kyoto and Usa Hachiman Shrine (宇佐神宮) in Usa, Oita.

One of the interesting characteristic of this shrine is the few torii gates which stretches for more than one kilometers, all the way to the sea.


The entrance to the main compound of the shrine, and torii gate number one on the right side.


That's the row of torii gates I mentioned. In this picture, only two out of several (not sure of the exact number) gates can be seen.


A failed attempt to communicate with the local pigeons haha wtf!

We later took the train to Fukuoka city center and the next stop was Canal City Hakata. It is a shopping complex comprising a great variety of business and leisure facilities including a shopping mall, a movie theater, amusement facilities, two hotels, showrooms and corporate offices, all together creating a "city theatre". Just like its name, there is a canal that runs through the middle of the site among the rounded shape and colorful buildings, which make up a small town. The ambiance isn't particularly appetizing, but it is conducive to shopping.

From the photos and description in the pamphlets I saw earlier, the canal sounds like an interesting place, until I went and saw the real thing.


Canal City Hakata, an entertainment city where anyone from any country can get together, have fun and relax anytime in any season.


That's the sad-looking canal, which look kinda lame actually haha! Anyway, there is a fountain shows every thirty minutes. 

My main purpose to Canal City was actually to visit one of the most popular tourist spots in Fukuoka - the Raumen Stadium located on the fifth floor of this shopping complex. Any visit to Fukuoka will never be complete without tasting the famous Hakata ramen. Hakata is the land that gave birth to tonkotsu ramen, a local whitish noodle dish featuring angel-hair thin ramen noodles in a pork bone based soup, called tonkotsu. Lard is considered a seasoning and is of the belief that not finishing the broth at the bottom of a bowl of ramen is a direct insult to the chef.

Making tonkotsu ramen is a complicated affair, with many shops spending two days on each batch, taking small amounts from the stock at different times during the process to end up with a final batch of complexly-layered and impossibly rich soup.


One of the specialty here is all the ramen restaurants sells mini bowls at 400 yen; this enable tourists to try on more types of different ramen on the same day.


This Ramen Stadium is usually packed during lunch time.

Personally, I am a huge fan of ramen, especially Hakata ramen and visiting Fukuoka, the heart of ramen country, is something like a dream come true for me because almost every ramen restaurants here only serve Hakata ramen.

Eight popular ramen restaurants are selected and gathered here from Fukuoka and all over Japan and they keep attracting a lot of ramen fans. Some of the branches here are the ones you cannot find anywhere else in Kyushu.  I decided to try a ramen hailing from Fukuoka, the prefecture that Hakata is part of, primarily because its noodles is the finest and it has the highest fat content available among the eight restaurants there. When in Rome, do as the Romans do, as they say.


Shodai Hide-chan (初代秀ちゃん) is one of the four restaurants there which serve Hakata ramen.


I went for the set meal of Ramen sho-gou (ラーメン初号), which comes with a plate of gyoza and rice. Just one word - pure satisfaction 
(that's two word actually haha!).

By the way, from a quick search, I found out that ramen is listed at number 8 on "World's 50 most delicious foods" readers' poll complied by CNN Go in 2011. Unfortunately for Penang laksa, which was ranked 7th in an earlier poll, dropped out of the list and the closest it got was Singaporean laksa at 44th place.

After being sedated by the tonkotsu as effectively as if we had been hit by tranquilizer dart, we knew it was time to move our bodies to the next destination - Tenjin, considered by many as the heart of  Fukuoka. Here is where the most prestigious department stores and hotels, a wealth of eating and drinking opportunities and the hub of the city's transportation network are located.


On the way to Tenjin, we passed through Nakasu (中州) area, the largest red-light district in the western Japan area, next to Osaka.


Tenjin Chikagai (天神地下街), an underground shopping mall. The best thing about the Tenjin Chikagai is not the shopping; it is the ability 
to avoid in climate weather by staying underground as it is connected to just about all the best areas of Tenjin.


The austere cobblestone floors of the European-style mall are beautiful.


An art exhibition in one of the buildings near Tenjin Chikagai.


A sign on the pedestrian walk to warn cyclist to be aware of the vehicles.


Wei Lun wasn't picking the flowers; he was just communicating with them.

From shopping malls and entertainment district, we put some different touch to our tour by visiting some of the famous shrines around Fukuoka city. Sometimes people might wonder what is so special about the shrines and temples in Japan because after all, they all look the same, right? Yes, sometimes I share the same feeling; however, I believe each of them has their own history and characteristics and some are worth a visit.

Our first temple was Joten-ji (承天寺). The only interesting thing I found at this temple are the three monuments.


The Main Hall of Joten-ji, completed more than eight centuries ago.


The statue of the Buddha inside the Main Hall.


A Japanese rock garden, or karesansui (枯山水) inside the temple.


These are the monuments I mentioned just now - the "Monument to Commemorate the Origin of Udon and Soba Noodles" and the 
"Monument to honour Onmanju Dokoro".

The founding priest of the temple, Enni-Ben'en went to China in 1235, mastered Zen Buddhism through a great hardship and came back to Japan in 1241. He brought home to Japan a variety of cultures from China besides the teachings of Buddhism. The skill of milling, as well as the recipe for yokan (azuki bean jelly), manju (bun), udon and soba were brought back. This monument is to mark his great achievements in teaching Japan these recipes and milling techniques, and the contribution he made to the development of Japan's dietary culture with regard to powdered food.

Enough of manju and buns. Lets move to the next destination, shall we?


Shofukuji Temple (福寺), built in 1195 is regarded as the first and oldest Zen temple in Japan.


The romon (楼門) of the temple. Although the temple buildings cannot be entered, visitors can walk through Shofukuji's attractive temple grounds 
and observe the buildings from outside.


Tocho-ji (東長寺) is the oldest Shingon temple in Kyushu.


The magnificent five-storey pagoda on the temple's compound.


The famous wooden statue of Buddha at Tocho-ji.


The paintings that depict the hell realms.

The main attraction to this temple is none other than the huge statue of Buddha. The wooden statue is the largest statue of a seated Buddha among the ones in Japan. The carving of the statue started in 1988 and it took four years to be completed. The statue is 10.8 meters in height and weighs 30 tons. The ring of light behind the Buddha measures 16.1 meters in height and is carved with numerous images of Buddha.

Visitors should not miss out on going through a series of tunnel underneath the statue. It is a treasure exhibition passage, where several paintings of the hell realms are put up. At the end of the passage, there is a pitch black parts, which offers a rare experience of total darkness.  It is so dark that you can't even see your fingers millimeters away from you! Definitely a worthwhile and free experience.


The Kyushu Shinkansen (bullet train) with the normal train in the background.


Bye bye Hakata, see you again!

After spending more than half day going around Fukuoka city with Wei Lun, it was time to bid farewell. It was a very short trip but I truly enjoyed it more than I'd have thought. I would love to return to this beautiful place and see more exciting stuff in the near future, in which I already have in mind when would it be.

It could come as soon as this winter in December, and lets see whether the trip materialises.