Here at Very Tasty World we have a passion for pasta and, as our regular ramen reviews emphasise, there is a joy in the variety of internationally available variants of noodle niceness that you can enjoy at home with just a kettle, a bowl and a pair of chopsticks. Of course, ramen restaurants are also available, if you are lucky enough to be able to reach one, so you don’t even have to trouble yourself to turn on the kettle.
But what if you want more?: To learn more and to taste more? What if you want to understand the history of ramen, instant or traditional, and to try various examples with different flavours from around the country for which ramen is best known? There is only one place to go, a foodie theme park where you can learn the history and, importantly, taste many different types of ramen in all their broth infused glory. The Shinyokohama Raumen Museum (The English site is here – please be clear of the spelling with the additional ‘u’, which is correct in Japanese, otherwise you might have search engine issues) is that place, a multi-storey building dedicated to everything that is ramen. We naturally felt obliged to travel there and research our culinary favourites. We were not alone in this desire to get to know ramen because Brittany Murphy’s character Abby does exactly the same thing when she visits in the film The Ramen Girl.
The museum is located in Yokohama, the second largest city in Japan, which is easily accessible from Tokyo. If you have a Japan Rail Pass you can use the shinkansen (bullet train) to arrive at Shin Yokohama, which is the closest station, but there are plenty of other train services available too. The ground floor is the museum’s main area of knowledge, displaying a range of information about the history of ramen from traditional to instant. The displays include chronological timelines and also show the progression of instant noodle technology. So you can observe the pots, the packets and even a noodle unravelling.
But the proof of the pasta is in the eating. So you need to head downstairs in order to fulfil your craving. Pro tip – if you are planning to visit, make sure you do so on an empty stomach – don’t have too much for breakfast in the morning..
The eating area, Sunset Shopping Street, is a recreation of a town in 1958, the year that instant ramen was invented. The whole environment has a sundowner setting with cloudy dark blue sky and street lighting which all adds to the ambience.
There are a number of restaurants where you can sample regional ramen, from miso ramen to salty soy sauce and rich, creamy tonkotsu where the broth is made by boiling pork bones for hours. The only problem is deciding which shop (or shops) to choose from, even though you know its ramen you want, the choices are far more complex than the expected ‘what flavour broth or meat/fish/vegetable combo,’ but the bigger ‘what region?’ question because each venue represents a different region of Japan’s quintessential local concoctions. Regional variations are prevalent in lots of Japanese foods such as udon (thick noodles) and okonomiyaki, so each ramen shop offering different options and all declaring their own as the very best, presents something of a conundrum to the casual noodle-slurper. We did see a number of visitors share a bowl of ramen before moving onto the next shop in order to taste as many different variations as possible. However, since our visit, the museum is clear that all adult visitors to each shop should purchase a bowl of ramen. This seems absolutely reasonable as it’s not fair to the restaurant owner to have table space taken up with multiple visitors sitting around a single bowl of noodles. Still, it’s a very pleasant choice to have to make. And these days you can order different sized portions, so if your appetite is big enough you may be able to sample many different types of smaller bowls. The street also has a traditional sweet shop, just in case you are still hungry!
Oh, and there’s even a classic kaiju (monster) poster on one of the fake hoardings – what more could you want?
This really is an essential tourist trip for ravenous lovers of ramen. Great fun for foodies in terms of understanding history of the world’s most popular instant food and also getting to eat yummy ramen.
There are loads of cool and interesting districts to visit that are just a (relatively) short train journey from central Tokyo. Kawagoe is one such place. It is just half an hour to one hour’s train ride away, depending on where in Tokyo you are staying, in Saitama prefecture. You can get there directly from Shinjuku on the Seibu line. It’s known as Little Edo because of its old warehouses and merchant homes, called Kurazukuri.
It has a charming old world feel, albeit with lots of shops for tourists, and there are loads of foodie attractions and restaurants to look out for; charcoal boiled eel in a sweet soy sauce is a speciality here, as are sweet potato dishes.
One of the attractions in Kawagoe is Kashiya Yokocho – Candy Alley – a street chock full of traditional Japanese shops offering sweet temptations.
This emporium had a giant penguin minding the store.
The Kawagoe tourism website has a brief history of the alley:
It is said that the beginning of this Kashiya Yokocho was in the early Meiji Period when Suzuki Tozaemon started to make candy in this prospering town in front of Yojuin Temple. In 1923, after Tokyo was damaged in the Great Kanto Earthquake, this area became the main producer and supplier of candy. There were more than 70 shops in the early Showa Period but due to the war and changes in lifestyle the number has decreased.
If you don’t have a sweet tooth, no problem. There are plenty of savoury snacks on offer as well. Takosen is takoyaki (deep fried octopus balls) sandwiched between prawn crackers.
The name combines tako (octopus) with senbei (cracker) and advertises itself as junk food. It is seriously good.
Sweet potatoes are particularly popular, in fact Kawagoe is known colloquially as the city of sweet potatoes. Once considered a staple after the war, when food was scarce, the city still makes multiple products from these tasty tubers.
And if you’re given a photo opportunity to pose as a sweet potato you have to take it, don’t you?
Imo senbei snacks are thinly sliced, dried sweet potato crackers sprinkled sparsely and randomly with black sesame seeds.
The curious thing about these is that you would expect them to be either sweet or slightly salty and they are neither. They are not bland, but rely on the natural sweetness of the sweet potato and have just a hint of sesame for additional flavour. They have a lovely crunchy texture and are great to eat as an accompaniment to a cool beer.
They are also very thin and lightweight – so they are ideal for slipping into your suitcase as an omiyage (a souvenir/gift) for your friends. Or you could just keep them and scoff them yourself when you get home!
The El Tatio geysers in the Atacama Desert are the world’s highest geysers. That’s the world’s highest altitude (4300m) not the world’s most spurty geysers.
Most trips are organised from San Pedro de Atacama. There are loads of companies in the town, which is fully geared up for tourism, and all of them will offer trips to the attractions in the area. Some excursions can be booked on the day; El Tatio needs to be booked in advance, if possible, as it’s a popular trip and involves an early start. Most companies will pick you up from your accommodation. This turned out to be quite handy, as we had to get up at 4am. It’s a 3 hour bumpy minibus ride to reach the site. You also need to be prepared with appropriate clothing: it was –9ºC on arrival but the temperature had gone above 30ºC by mid-morning. Wearing lots of layers and discarding them as necessary (whilst maintaining an appropriate level of decency) is the best approach.
It was absolutely worth the effort. We arrived at sunrise to see the geysers at golden hour. They were spectacular.
El Tatio is a geothermal field, the third largest in the world, and contains geysers, fumaroles, steam vents, mudpots and hot springs.
Because the area hasn’t yet been designated a national park (geothermal energy companies tried to harness the energy but didn’t really make a go of it and the area is still vaguely designated as “industrial” rather than a “tourist area”) there are no designated walkways and you can just wander through the geyser field. This means that you can actually stand in a geyser – great if your feet are feeling a little chilly! You have to be careful though – the earth’s crust is pretty thin up there and a number of people have been seriously injured falling through it and getting burned or frozen in a random extreme temperature accident.
If you bring your bathing suit, and the tour allows time for it, you can go swimming in the geothermal hot springs.
The surrounding area is very beautiful as well. Most tours will offer a leisurely journey back, stopping off at various sites.
Llama kebab barbeques are available if you want a late breakfast.
The cactus forest is also worth a visit.
Chiang Mai is the largest city in northern Thailand and has a very laid back vibe, particularly in the old city which is surrounded by a walled canal with four gates.
Wandering through this area reveals many beautiful temples and wats.
There are loads of places to see in and around the city as well as trips to take in the surrounding area:
You can visit orchid farms…
The gorgeous Mae Sae waterfalls are a series of ten waterfalls spaced a few hundred metres apart. You can follow the pathway alongside the falls and plunge into the pools if you do desire. There are picnic spots along the way. It gets quite crowded at the start of the trail but as you hike towards the further falls the crowds melt away and you can enjoy the beauty of the lovely surroundings….
You can visit elephant sanctuaries – even become a mahout for a day – but do check which are responsible and ethical and make sure that they do not exploit the elephants.
And there are many temples to visit including the Wiang Kum Kam complex
Back in the city, Chiang Mai has a number of bustling markets for exploration, notably the night market which is a short walk away from the old city. On some nights of the week other streets are closed to traffic and stalls pop up. These are really popular so expect crowds. Of course, markets wouldn’t be markets without food stalls and Thai street food is amazing. The market stalls often have plastic tables and chairs nearby – they are not necessarily associated with any particular stall – so that you can order your food and then take it to any table to enjoy at leisure.
One of the best street food dishes is som tam – green papaya salad. Green papaya is shredded into a large wooden bowl and then pounded with beans, carrots and tomatoes. Sometimes little shrimp are added although you can ask for them to be excluded if you are vegetarian. Chillies, lime juice, palm sugar and fish sauce are added to the mix and pounded to release the flavours giving that characteristic Thai combination of sweet, sour, salt and spice. Be warned though, those teeny Thai chillies are hot! The dish is then adorned with crushed toasted peanuts for added crunch. But on a warm, humid evening, it’s the perfect dish for a refreshing snack, preferably accompanied with a nice cold beer.