Of Ramen and Hello Kitty
It’s a wonder what one night of good rest could do to a person. From the grouch I was the day before I transformed into someone in considerably better spirits the next morning. That was until I saw the rain. What a mood dampener…
Still, the show must go on. The coach transported us to Yokohama (横浜) where we spent time for the better half of the day. First and foremost, the Yokohama Chinatown (横浜中華街) cannot be missed. Purported to be the largest Chinatown not only in Japan but in Asia, it started and grew exponentially in 1859 following opening of the sea port in Yokohama. Today not many Chinese are still living within Yokohama Chinatown itself but it remains a major sightseeing spot and a must visit for many overseas Chinese tourists. Us included.
Personally, I have always found chinatowns fascinating. For a start, I’m always amazed by the fact that Chinese have somehow found their way to all parts of the world: from Yokohama to San Francisco, London to Barcelona. This is also the very reason why I am a Singaporean – because my ancestors travelled all the way down from Canton to Singapore!
Because of the unrelenting rain, we didn’t stay very long shopping around Chinatown. Furthermore, most things that could be found in and around Yokohama Chinatown are easily available in Singapore so nothing much intrigued us. After visiting this iconic location in Yokohama, we headed for yet another iconic location – Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum (新横浜ラーメン博物館). And no, no spelling error there.
To be precise, Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum isn’t exactly a museum but more like a three-storey food amusement park where some of the biggest names in the Ramen circuit in Japan are gathered together to provide visitors (mostly overseas tourists) a convenient one-stop regional Ramen experience. At last count, 9 carefully selected Ramen branches occupy the stores at the basement level of the ‘museum’, which is very tastefully donned up like the yesteryear of Tokyo complete with billboards overhead and music blaring from the loudspeakers as if they were played on a gramophone.
It was a very tight space accommodating the many people who were either queueing at their favourite Ramen store, browsing around trying to decide on which Ramen to eat, or basically standing around to soak in the whole atmosphere. And in order to allow patrons to be able to taste more of the Ramen offered, half portions are available. Which is a very good strategy if one intends to eat to one’s fill, provided time is not a factor. The queues were outrageously long when we visited!
Our tour leader’s personal recommendation was the Sapporo-style Ramen. Clearly it was one of the most popular stalls because the queue was, in much correspondence with its status, equally impressive. After walking round and round aimlessly, the mum, the little sis and I decided on patronising the stall with one of the shortest queue – Harukiya Ramen (春木屋). We reckoned any of the stalls would serve delicious Ramen, so it didn’t really matter which choice we made. Our deduction was quite right.
We didn’t have to wait too long for our 3 bowls of Tokyo-style Ramen. On a cold and wet winter day as such, there couldn’t be a more inviting and welcoming sight than a bowl of noodles complete with piping hot soup. As with any other Ramen stall, the patrons quietly waited for their order to arrive, concentrated on their Ramen when it arrived, and then quickly vacated the seats after being done with their food. We did the same. In no time, we were done with our lunch and all ready to explore the rest of the ‘museum’ which includes an area showing Ramen exhibits and history (the true ‘museum’ part of this building) and a shopping area for the Ramen enthusiasts to bring vacuum-packed Ramen home with them, on top of other knickknacks. However I think nothing beats Ramen in fresh, thick broth prepared by chefs who obviously know what they are doing compared to us novices so as much as I love my Ramen, I will never be tempted to buy those vacuum packs.
The Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum, repleted with symbols and memorabilia reminiscent of urban Tokyo in the 1960’s, was a truly fun place to visit as we relived how life was back then during the ‘Ramen boom’, so to speak. But it is also one of those places where you visit once, and once is enough to last you a lifetime. I revisited the food amusement park 18 months later, with the mister in tow. It was kind of a trip we specially made down to Yokohama from downtown Tokyo (where we bunked in with a good friend), and let’s just say my companions (the mister and good friend) were not amused with my making them travel all the way to Yokohama just so to visit this ‘museum’. So I guess it’s only worth a visit if you truly love your Ramen, or stay within striking distance. Otherwise, good Ramen alternatives are easily available everywhere in Tokyo.
Our next stop for the day – Sanrio Puroland, a rather small-scaled indoor theme park about 30 minutes away by train from Shinjuku Station. Unlike Tokyo Disneyland, Sanrio Puroland appeals much more to younger children. But the stationery shop selling all sorts of Sanrio character merchandise saw an endless stream of wide-eyed customers, adults included. While there also exist Sanrio stores in Singapore, none is at this scale with such a complete collection of merchandise. I’m not a huge fan of Sanrio (although the little sis loves My Melody) but even then, I was equally taken by the cute array of pinky merchandise. The little sis, needless to say, was elated to have found numerous authentic My Melody stationery.
Sanrio Puroland was truly an eye-opener. I’d never seen indoor amusement parks that elaborately adorned. I had initially thought that Lotte World Amusement Park in Seoul is one of its kind in the world and I was completely dazzled. But that was before I saw Sanrio Puroland. It might not be entirely fair to compare the two because they are obviously different in terms of scale, and appeal. Lotte World after all, still has to maintain outdoor thrill rides while Sanrio Puroland probably easily generates more than enough income to sustain the park from the sale of Sanrio merchandise alone.
Subsequent visits back to Tokyo always sees me wanting to return to Sanrio Puroland but the trip out never quite materialised over the numerous trips we made. One big reason is that this indoor amusement park really doesn’t appeal much to me. It is definitely worth visiting if you have young children, especially girls, in tow. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be missing anything much.