Savoring Japan's Food Museums
Sunset in downtown Tokyo, circa 1958: the small weathered storefronts in the narrow street beckon passersby hurrying home. A sweet shop, street vendors, a couple of cozy bars — and wafting down the street, the tempting aroma of savory noodles seems to come from everywhere...
... from eight ramen shops, in fact. This busy working-class neighborhood is firmly planted in Tokyo's nostalgic culinary past. Welcome to one of Japan's latest escapes from reality: the food museum.
Opened in 1994, the Shinyokohama Ramen Museum trailblazed Japan's current food museum trend. The museum features well-known ramen restaurants from around the country in a celebration of one of Japan's most beloved fast foods, Chinese-style noodles. Each shop serves a special variety of noodles and soup, garnished with its own selection of toppings. And before digging into a bowl of noodles, ramen lovers — some 100,000 to 150,000 hungry visitors each month — whet their appetites by strolling through the museum's extensive collection of ramen-related memorabilia from all over Japan.
Nearby, the Yokohama Curry Museum (opened 2001) dishes up various kinds of curry, which, like ramen, is another non-indigenous food that Japanese have embraced as their own. Both Japanese and Indian-style curries are served in restaurants amid a recreation of late-nineteenth century Yokohama. Exhibits include historic curry-related advertising and products, along with arcane curry facts from around the world. Visitors can select from eleven restaurants that offer curries from Thailand, India, Europe and Japan... but only after waiting in line for up to an hour.
While most of Japan's major amusement parks struggle to survive, these food theme "museums" — combination amusement park, history museum and food hall — are thriving. Most are part of larger amusement centers: a complement to video arcades, shopping gallerias or markets. Their vintage interiors and delicious aromas provoke old memories in some, and create new ones for others.
It seems logical that this kind of multi-sensory interaction has been picked up by the video-game company Namco, which, following on the unique success of the Ramen Museum, has opened six of its own food parks in recent years, including Osaka Noodle City/Naniwa Mendarake this October.
Other popular food museums include Ikebukuro Gyoza Stadium in Tokyo, which features 22 restaurants serving regional-style gyoza (stuffed pork dumplings). In its first year of operations (2002-3) 2.18 million people visited Gyoza Stadium, twice the number expected. Also opened in 2002 was the Naniwa Kuishinbo Yokocho (Osaka Eaters' Alley) in Osaka. Both food parks evoke a nostalgic Japan during its optimistic, high-growth years in the fifties and sixties.
Still hungry? Try the Otaru Unga Shokudo (Otaru Canal Cafeteria) in Hokkaido, the Ramen Stadium in Fukuoka or the Shimizu Sushi Museum in Shizuoka. The Sushi Museum is a reproduction Meiji era town (1867-1911) where visitors troll the seven sushi restaurants, reflect at a small shrine dedicated to tuna, and learn about sushi history. How about dessert? Drop by the newly opened Ice Cream City for a Turkish ice cream — along with over one million expected visitors this year.
The parks continually refresh and excite the palate by shuffling their tenants and renewing menus regularly. Families love the child-friendly food and atmosphere — and the low prices. Specials are always on offer, like smaller portions for women, and dishes made with seasonal ingredients. And as new parks continue to open, hungry visitors can look forward to an even more extensive menu of delectable, interactive food experiences.