Inside Japan's Ramen Museum

Eating across Japan at the Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum

Though it's just after noon in Yokohama, Japan, I find myself suddenly immersed into an artificial nighttime world, illuminated only by the golden light of streetlamps. Under a moody dark-blue sky, people sip cheap local beers and break off in lines that snake around the space, overflowing into stairwells and back alleys.

Here, two floors below the nondescript entrance to the Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum, Japan's diverse culinary culture collides, offering hungry visitors like myself the chance to travel the country via our taste buds under the warm glow of an artificial night.

Founded in 1994, the museum bills itself as "the world's first food-themed amusement park." Though there are no rides or roller-coasters, there are plenty of thrills tucked into the myriad storefronts that each contain a different regional iteration of the nation's signature soup.

The origin of ramen is rooted in Chinese cuisine and arrived in Japan in the 19th century, where it was adapted with dashi stock and a complex array of ingredients.

As ramen made its way from the port towns to other regions, it was shaped by the cultural and environmental elements it encountered. Today, there is no one ramen; rather, there are at least 30 regional varieties spread throughout Japan, creating a wide-ranging bucket list for noodle lovers to slurp their way through.

At Shin-Yokohama, along the crowded streetscape—itself a replica of a Japanese street from 1958, the year instant ramen was invented—seasoned local visitors and overwhelmed tourists alike are forced to make a seemingly impossible decision: Which ramen do I choose?

As I often do while making foreign food decisions, I seek out the longest line; in this case, the one leading to the Ryu Shanghai Honten shop. After feeding my bills through the vending machine menu, a token of ramen shops throughout Japan, I am soon greeted by a bowl of rich miso ramen with a thick, seafood-based broth. A scoop of raw, spicy miso and glossy slices of pork sit atop chewy, super-fat noodles, which are folded more than 32 times for the perfect bite. It is a concoction so hot and so heavenly that I feel transcendent, as if floating over Yokohama and coming back down only to wipe my nose and sweaty brow.

By the time I emerge, a new longest line has formed elsewhere, and another after that, proving that all ramen is created equal under Shin-Yokohama's faux sky. Next, I head to Komurasaki for a soup with a tonkotsu (pork bone) base from Kumamoto, one with a delicate broth, thin noodles, slabs of pork, crumbled chips of roast garlic and a drizzle of house-made oil.

Each of the museum's makeshift storefronts offers a diverse interpretation of the beloved dish, from Yuji Ramen's briny "tuna-kotsu," with a cloudy, gelatinous fish-based broth and ultra-thin noodles, to Shina Soba-ya's umami-intense concoction, made with the wheat flour typically used in noodle production and chicken bred by the shop master himself.

Some of Japan's most iconic ramen shops are also represented here, like Rishiri Ramen Miraku, whose original location on Rishiri Island—open less than three hours each day and serving a super-savory soup made with Rishiri's famous kelp—is accessible only to those willing to put in eight hours of travel via plane and ferry. Then there's Sumire, Japan's most famous miso ramen shop, known nationwide for its firm, curvy, Hokkaido-style noodles and its rich, fragrant broth.

Though decisions at Tokyo's most delicious museum can be daunting, the result is universal for those culinary travelers seeking a unique and transportive experience. I leave happy and satiated, my fingers puffy with salinity and my belly sloshing with broth. As I emerge from the dim glow of nighttime and into the sunny afternoon, I vow to come back again to try some more.