For one of my first assignments in a Japanese high school I was asked to teach a lesson based on Japanese inventors. Not such a difficult task, I considered, what with Japan’s reputation for creativity, yet my main concern was how this would connect with your average high school kid. I mean, would I have given a toss about British RAF pilot Frank Whittle, who at the age of 21 ushered in the modern jet age by inventing the jet engine, when I was their age?
My fears proved founded. My mention of Daisuke Inoue (karaoke machine) brought no sign of recognition. Yoshiro Nakamatsu (floppy disk, digital watch, taxi meter) raised not even a mutter. However, when I mentioned Momofuku Ando, creator of instant noodles and cup ramen, the room was suddenly abuzz.
Everyone knew about Momofuku Ando. In Japan, you see, instant noodles are a big thing.
There is no place where this is more evident than at the Cup Noodle Museum in Yokohama. Yes, you heard me right; a museum for cup noodles. To an outsider, particularly a British one for whom cup noodles will always be remembered for being the butt of Reeves and Mortimer jokes, the idea of Ando spending an entire year in his garden shed, sleeping only four hours a night, without a single day off in order to develop the snack food, seems faintly ridiculous.
However, stepping inside the museum you are immediately disavowed of this sentiment. Here you are greeted by the Instant Noodles History Cube, a glass room walled literally top to bottom by the chronological life of Ando’s creation, starting with the first Chicken Ramen in 1958, the utterances of natsukashi and fond memories for one brand or another echoing around the room. There is then a theatre, packed to the rafters, showing the history of instant ramen, as well as a faithful representation of Ando’s famous shed followed by a 58 metre panarama of The Momofuku Ando Story.
As interesting as all of this is, it is the hands on stuff that is most fun. Should you wish you can make chicken ramen by hand in the Chicken Ramen Factory, kneading the wheat into noodles before drying and taking it home. This activity is predominantly aimed at school kids and takes 90 minutes. Not having the patience of a nine year old, I plumped instead for the My Cup Noodles Factory.
Here we were given an empty package, a cup noodle canvas, and plonked amongst dozens of other immaturely excitable adults (though some of them had brought children along with them to legitimise their infantile glee, a ruse I saw immediately through) in front of a wide array of multicoloured felt tipped pens, and set to the task of decoration, to let our imaginations run wild, to bare our souls in cup noodle form.
Not feeling at my most imaginative, and not particularly adept with a colouring pen -nor a regular one, my crtitics amongst you may cry – I was glad that I was there to celebrate my partner’s birthday (yep, I know how to show a girl a good time) and thus adorned my cup with poorly scrawled cakes and candles, before taking the opportunity to look over the artistic abilities of those around me. Most were bright, lurid manga style depictations of noodle characters, though one man had simply coloured the words Cup Noodle in black, and nothing more. I edged away from him carefully. Therein a dark soul lies…
Decorations completed we moseyed on to the factory floor, where our noodles were cupped (upside down and flipped, just like at the real factory) before heading to the flavour department. Though my drawing skills had let me down, this was where I intended to shine, certain that of the 5,460 combinations that can be chosen to create a unique snack from four soup flavours and 12 toppings, my culinary choices would be of such staggering innovation that the factory worker would be overcome with excitement, and I would be whisked off to the executive suite of the Japan Instant Food Association headquarters, faster than you can say ‘twelve months in a shed’.
I was a little perturbed when my choices caused not even a raise of an eyebrow, and watched in stunned silence as my package was sealed, shrinkwrapped, and placed inside a blow-up, see-through, stringed container, looking for all the world like a gaily adorned Warholian handbag.
Later that week I sat at my work desk. Lunchtime. The water was steaming from my cup of noodles and my colleagues had already commended me on my garish daubings. This was nothing, I told them, an expectant chuckle on my lips. It is what’s inside that counts. I dipped my chopsticks and raised them to my mouth. Pork? Good. Kimchi? Good. Cheese? Good. Prawn? Good. Combined? Bloody awful.
Okay, so perhaps I am no Momofuku Ando. However, I am not one that is downhearted so easily, and I am pretty sure that my idea for a mass-produced hover vehicle will be then next big thing on the market. So Frank Whittle, you better look out. I’m coming for your mantle!
The museum is pretty much equal distance from either Minatomirai or Bashamichi stations on the Minatomirai lines, taking an 8 minute walk from each. If you are bussing in you can take the Akai kutsu bus and get off at the Kokusaibashi Cup noodles museum-mae stop. Arriving by car is just a five minute drive from the Minatomirai Interchange on Kanagawa Route 1 Yokohane Line.