Photo/IllutrationThe interior of the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum features a historical reproduction of a typical 1950s streetscape. The museum is crammed with ramen shops from around Japan, in addition to a barber, a beauty salon and a movie theater. (Photo by Lisa Vogt)

  • Photo/Illustraion

“What’s that squishy pink and white thing in ramen?” someone recently asked me.

At first, nothing registered. Then it dawned on me that the person was inquiring about “narutomaki” fish cake. Old-school ramen is usually topped with a slice of it, which got me thinking about Japan’s ubiquitous egg noodles, and the next thing I know, I’m on my way to the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum.

Upon paying the 310 yen ($2.95) entrance fee, I went inside and followed the signs down to a replica of the Narutobashi train station. Sentimental “kayo” music played in the background, with Mina Aoe’s sexy and husky voice filling the air, as I wandered the 1958 streetscape replication of Japan’s yesteryear. Dingy “sunakku” snack bars, a “dagashi-ya” old-fashioned cheap sweets shop and an “izakaya” pub were open for business. Bittersweet Showa: what an awesome atmosphere!

Ramen is made up of four elements: the soup (broth plus “umami” seasoning), oil, noodles (straight, wrinkled, thin or thick) and various toppings.

There are nine ramen shops here. Each offers half-portion bowls of ramen so I figured I’d be able to sample a third of them. But which ones are the best?

I went around and around, peeping inside and looking at the menus. In the end, I decided to eat from Japan’s northernmost region and its southernmost, and then I sampled some from the other side of the world.

Rishiri Ramen Miraku was umami rich with pieces of tender Rishiri kelp floating on the soup. The noodles were thin, hard and wrinkled, and an uninitiated person would think that they didn’t boil it long enough as it was quite al dente.

I scratched my head at Ryukyu Shinmen Tondou’s naming and had to ask what “otoko-aji” and “onna-aji” were. I was told that the “man’s” ramen was rich (kotteri) and the “woman’s” light (assari). I might have weird friends (like attracts like?), but it seems that my male and female friends are reversed in this regard.

I want to think of myself as feminine, so I went with the light ramen. The noodles were soft, white and straight; a bit like “hiya-mugi” noodles, and the soup was clear.

The German ramen shop, Muku Zweite, was rather unique. I peered into the bowl that was put in front of me and saw a rectangular slice of fatty pork (which tasted like bacon), some chopped green onions and one piece of “nori” seaweed in a bowl of what looked like cappuccino. Under the foam was a creamy soup with thick, pasta-like noodles.

At first, I didn’t know what to make of this ramen, but with each mouthful, it got tastier, and when I finished, I was quite satisfied. This shop has gluten-free and vegetarian ramen, too.

The atmosphere here is Showa all the way, but there was no “narutomaki” in any of my ramen.

* * *

This article by Lisa Vogt, a Washington-born and Tokyo-based photographer, originally appeared in the March 18 issue of Asahi Weekly. It is part of the series "Lisa’s In and Around Tokyo," which depicts the capital and its surroundings through the perspective of the author, a professor at Meiji University.