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Oodles of Noodles Draw Crowds to Shrine

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Yoji Iwaoka spent five years and gained a dozen pounds trying to persuade skeptics to help him create a monument to the noodle known as ramen. He went ahead anyway. “All the evidence was piling up,” he said. “It was like my ancestors were telling me what to do.”

Iwaoka is now slurping up the rewards.

His Ramen Museum draws far more visitors annually than Japan’s national art museum. More than 5 million people have flocked to the noodle shrine since its launch four years ago, testament to this nation’s passion for its hearty noodle soup, quirky theme parks and weird museums devoted to everything from salt to animal genitalia.

About one in 10 ramen museum visitors becomes a groupie, investing $10 for a season pass. Others spend a small fortune to experience it just once.

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Hatsumi Shibuya, 19, and two girlfriends made a spring-break pilgrimage here, shelling out $150 apiece for the two-hour bullet train from northeastern Japan, $2 for the admission fee and $10 for the de rigueur bowl of soup.

Iwaoka’s temple of ramen is part archive, part Disneyland. It serves up oodles and oodles of facts about noodles. School field trips tour exhibits documenting ramen milestones such as “the dawn of high-grade types of bagged ramen” and “the untold stories of instant ramen.” They learn about “the cup of noodles that never appeared on the market” and “the leading factor in the prosperity of cupped ramen” (answer: Styrofoam).

On display are special types of instant ramen sold around the world, from tom yam ramen from Thailand to a special edition of cupped ramen bearing a picture of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Then there’s the gift shop that sells $100 silver earrings molded from curly ramen noodles, key chains with plastic ramen noodles on a spoon and “emergency ramen” that stays fresh for three years.

At this museum, all of history is divided into pre- and post-1958. That year marked the birth of instant ramen, which the museum says “has been called the greatest postwar invention.”

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When they see the red-and-yellow package of that original “chikin ramen,” older visitors cackle about their memories of the ad slogan: “only two minutes after pouring hot water.”

Ramen in a cup arrived in 1971 after the inventor saw Americans cracking the flat, instant-noodle block in half into a bowl and pouring boiling water over it. (“American cup noodles are shorter because Americans can’t really slurp,” noted museum spokesman Hiromi Sawada as she gives a tour, referring to the socially acceptable, snore-like noise that Japanese make when eating noodles.)

The lower of the museum’s two floors is more pint-sized theme park than museum. It is open until 11 p.m., and visitors can stroll around a windowless replica of an imaginary 1958 Japanese street at dusk. It features miniature replicas of 88 wooden buildings packed into an area only slightly larger than a basketball court, including two real bars, a candy shop and the entrance of the sento, or communal bath, where most people once bathed.

On this floor, visitors can sup at any of nine real ramen restaurants imported from all across Japan. The lines sometimes stretch for hours as visitors await their turn to slurp thin, straight noodles in a heavy, white pork broth from the southern island of Kyushu, or thick, curly noodles in thin broth from Sapporo in northern Hokkaido.

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Masami Yonekura, 22, a gas station attendant, drove three hours to visit the museum a second time.

“I love this place for its atmosphere and because you can eat so many kinds of ramen here,” a sated Yonekura said after devouring a bowl of ramen at each of three shops. “I thought it must be a great person who thought of this.”

The noodle theme park fits right in in a country with little wilderness where customers can snowboard on giant indoor ski slopes, catch a wave at a fake indoor beach or test the mettle of their jeeps on miniature obstacle courses.

The ramen museum’s lower floor creates nostalgia for old Japan.

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“It’s just like old times,” said Mitsuko Koishikawa, 67. “It looked like this when I was little.”

Iwaoka said he wanted to create something artistic and nostalgic born of “ordinary people’s enjoyment.” And Japan could not be much more passionate about ramen--which is said to have been imported from China in 1665, although the Japanese are believed to be the first to have added it to soup. The first ramen shop opened in 1910, according to the museum, which boasts a replica of the shop’s sliding wooden door. But ramen became more popular in postwar Japan because it was cheap and filling.

So just how much of the stuff do Japanese eat? They wolf down 5.3 billion servings of instant ramen annually--about 46 bags per capita--in about 600 varieties that can also be bought from vending machines. Then there’s the fresh stuff. Phone books list 30,000 ramen shops in this country the size of California, although there are probably tens of thousands more at rest stops and universities, the museum calculates.

Throughout Japan, city streets are chockablock with the narrow shops where often the only seats are at the counter--if there are any seats at all. Cooks clad in plastic boots ladle broth from giant vats into hefty serving bowls containing fresh-cooked noodles. Some shops roll and cut their own noodles in their front windows.

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At $4 to $10 a bowl, the filling fare is a bargain in expensive Japan and the food of choice after late-night drinking or a hard day at the factory.

Keiko Kosuge, professor of food culture at Kurashiki Sakuyo University in central Japan, remembers eating ramen to cure hangovers. “We put vinegar and spice in it to get rid of headaches by sweating,” she said.

But recruiting the restaurants to open branches at the museum was not easy. First, Iwaoka and some friends from his college rugby team roamed the country eating bowl after bowl of ramen in their quest to attract the best restaurants.

Iwaoka visited the owner of Sumire, a famous shop in Sapporo’s “ramen row,” at least two dozen times over three years, begging the reluctant restaurateur to create another outlet. Each weekend visit, he downed several bowls of ramen to be polite.

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“I thought he was weird and suspicious, that he was just trying to make money off of me,” said Nobuyoshi Muraoka, who finally acquiesced to starting a new shop in the museum over the objections of his parents, who opened the original restaurant 45 years ago. “Then I started to believe that Iwaoka was really passionate about ramen, not money.”

Now, the nine shops at the museum ladle out an average of 4,234 bowls of ramen a day--with enough noodles served over the first three years to stretch around the Earth five times, the museum has calculated.

Muraoka is thrilled.

“Being in the museum makes me feel like I’m the elite of ramen workers,” he said.

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Curiously, Iwaoka drew his inspiration for the ramen museum after a visit to New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

“When I visited the MOMA, I realized how casually people visit museums in the U.S.,” he said. “In Japan, museums are considered arcane places only for scholars.”

Iwaoka, 38, who had worked for his father’s real estate company before opening the museum, also wanted to do something to help awaken the sleepy section of Shin-Yokohama where he grew up.

Using some property owned by his father, he managed to secure bank loans of about $23 million at today’s exchange rate by putting the property up as collateral. Now, Iwaoka--whose business card is shaped like a ramen bowl--is planning to triple the size of the museum, which he said earned a profit of about $3.3 million in its latest year.

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And he has his sights on creating another ramen museum overseas. Where? Where else but Las Vegas? “I want to show the Japanese lifestyle, culture and eating habits,” he said. “I want to express those things through ramen.”

Etsuko Kawase in The Times’ Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.


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