Here’s a recipe you can’t try at home (but trust me, it works): steep the Japanese people in efficiency for 800 years and combine the resulting brew with fear of European colonialism. The mixture will separate into equal parts “knack-for-speed” and “fascination-with-convenience.” Mix these with post-War food shortages, add a sprinkling of genius, and you’ll have invented instant ramen, beloved staple of the college dorm room and low-budget foodie kitchen alike. A survey conducted in 2000 found that Japanese people believe instant ramen to be their country’s greatest invention. Although it seems demented at first, look below the surface and it makes perfect sense: using instant ramen, starving post-War Japan was able to feed themselves, improve their economy, prop their middle class, and feed the world. Instant noodles became an important cultural ambassador and paved the way for other Japanese exports. One museum exists to share the love and history of instant ramen with the world: the Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen Museum.
Although the Instant Ramen Museum was rolled into our Osaka trip, it’s not actually in Osaka; it’s in Ikeda, a suburb about an hour outside the great city. Ikeda feels homey and sleepy, but their efforts to try convincing Western tourists to visit are hard to miss:
We walked from the station toward the museum, the streets winding lazily through a nice neighborhood with lovely old houses on ample land, until suddenly the museum was there: tall and square, brick and mortar, a bronze statue of instant ramen inventor Ando out front. The huge, overly-friendly smile on his face and the almost-too-casual pose made him look like some kind of Noodle Supreme Leader, the “benevolent” and “caring” dictator of of The People’s Republic of Noodle Land. We took the obligatory pictures with him, then strode in. It’s hard to imagine enjoying something as surreal as a museum dedicated to flash-fried noodles infused with sodium-heavy powered flavoring, but as a dedicated Portland foodie hipster, I was sure my sense of ironic pleasure wouldn’t let me down.
First things first: the history of instant ramen! We walked into a huge room with a shack and a small theater decorated like a styrofoam ramen cup in the middle, cutting a hole in the middle of the room and making a rough loop out of it. The shack: a replica of the one Ando holed up in to conduct his experiments in preserving the noodles and flavorings, complete with vats of “oil” for you to ooh and aah at. (Flash frying the noodles was his primary preservation innovation, donchaknow!) Although it was a mostly hands-off experience, the kitsch of it was fun. Look! The chickens Ando used for flavoring! What cute little piles of noodles! Holy crap, that a big vat of soy sauce!
Next the theater, which give a short, animated version of the full history of instant ramen creation, production, dissemination, and success. Although all this is covered in depth by the various displays in the museum proper, the theater paints the broad strokes for you to get a feeling for the timeline. We learn about Ando’s inspiration, how he was “haunted by his vision of cheap, tasty noodles” (direct quote), his eventual success in Japan, then the world, then the solar system! (So not kidding; so not sorry.) The voice acting was cute, and the characters charming as hell. When it was over, we were more than ready to get to the exhibits.
Although nowhere on the scale of a science or children’s museum, the Instant Ramen Museum strives for interactivity. Lift-the-flap Question and Answer display? Check. Hands-on demonstration of styrofoam cup loading? Check. Openable model of a 1960s ramen vending machine? Super check. Out on the rim, there were interactive displays galore, and we ran between them, poking and prodding and spinning and flipping, probably looking more like amped-up preschoolers than adults. Although the none of the displays were in English, the English audio guide was enough to give us a basic idea of what was going on, and the rest we were able to ascertain with our hands.
Toward the end of the display rim, a video played a loop about the challenge of creating “space ramen” for Japanese astronauts on the International Space Station, complete with silly 3D animations about how regular (earth) ramen would react in a zero-G environment. The expression on the man’s face as the ramen floats out of its cup and spreads everywhere is something between horror, surprise, and awe. Meanwhile the noodles spread to take up every pixel of the screen, as though you couldn’t imagine on your own how disgusting and gooey it would be have noodles and soup on every surface of your multi-billion dollar space station.
Around the back side of the loop is an instant ramen product timeline made of cardboard and styofoam packages glued to the wall rows by product line, aligned with columns to mark the year of release. Although it only covered Japanese releases for Nissin products (Ando’s company), it was impressive, taking up two bus-lengths of wall space.
Loop completed, we walked out toward the back where there were displays of awards and a special area for “build your own” ramen cups, similar to a Subway for ramen. Employees with surprisingly sunny smiles and polyester uniforms helped customers create their own original cup of ramen, complete with soup powder and styrofoam cup, all wrapped up in an inflated plastic bag to protect it from being crushed. Unfortunately, I was under the misapprehension that this service was available by reservation only, and we didn’t have the time for making our own ramen besides, so we made our way to the exit. As much fun as we’d had learning about the intricacies of shelf-stable noodle production and history, it was time to go.
Address: 8-25 Masumicho, Ikeda, Osaka Prefecture 563-0041, Japan
Get there: Arrive at Ikeda Station (Hakyu Takarazuka line) and leave through the southern exit. Turn left. When you come to the street, follow the road that runs parallel to the train tracks for two blocks, then turn right (due south). After a long block, you should come to a lighted intersection. Cross it and continue south. The museum is at the end of another long block on the right.
Price: The museum itself is free admission, although there is a charge for the “My Cup Noodles Factory” (300 yen/~$3 USD) and for the “Chicken Ramen Factory” (500 yen/~$5 USD, reservation required).
- Get the audio guide. The bad news: all the displays are available in Japanese only. The good news: for a fully-refundable 2000 yen deposit (~$20 USD), you can get an audio guide in English or Chinese. Although the audio guides don’t cover every single display, it syncs perfectly with the “Birth of Chicken Ramen” research shack and “Cup Noodles Drama Theater.” With the information you get from these two, you can piece together the meaning of the other displays. Having at least a little Japanese is useful, but not necessary.
- Try the “My Cup Noodles Factory.” Although I didn’t understand at the time, there are two different “make your own ramen” activities, and of them, the My Cup Ramen Factory doesn’t require a reservation. You get to decorate your cup, pack the noodles, choose your soup flavors, and take home your creation after it’s been sealed and shrink-wrapped by an employee.
- Also, try the “Chicken Ramen Factory.” This is the one that takes a reservation because its so intensive: you get the mix the flour, knead and stretch the dough, steam and flavor the noodles, and flash fry them. It’s only available at certain times each day and you have to make a reservation in advance, but I think it would be really fun for someone who likes to cook.
- The museum is closed on Tuesdays (except where Tuesday is a national holiday, in which case it’s closed Wednesday), and the Chicken Ramen Factory is closed Mondays and Tuesdays (except national holidays).
Based on my diary entries from November 17, 2013.