If Willy Wonka had been Japanese, and his sweet tooth had instead been an obsession with instant ramen, his mad and marvellous factory could have looked something like the Cup Noodles Museum in Yokohama.
Better known in Britain as Pot Noodle, the fast and filling comfort food that crams the shelves of convenience stores and student kitchens might seem like an unlikely choice for a museum tribute. But rather than crass commercialism, it’s the result of a utopian dream belonging to enterprising Japanese mastermind, Momofuku Ando.
So the story goes, one cold night in post-war Japan, down-and-out Ando walked the devastated streets of his hometown Osaka to find crowds of harassed workers waiting in long queues at black-market ramen stalls. He concluded that Japan needed a quicker fix to relieve its pressing hunger pangs.
Over the next decade, Ando experimented with countless ways of preserving noodles until he finally concocted his instant Chicken Ramen in 1958. His success was to create a dish of effortless simplicity, achieving instant gratification through nothing more than the addition of hot water. A quick stir and it’s ready for the masses. Later, he pulled off another hit with Cup Noodles, an instant meal in a pot of its own.
Fast forward 50 years and Ando’s bright idea has become a global empire under the name of Nissin. It’s a powerhouse that has produced more than 2,000 types of noodles, deserving of not one but two museums in its honour. I’ve come to the larger of the two in Japan’s hyper-modern harbour Yokohama, half an hour south of Tokyo.
Towering over the waterfront with geometric verve, its soaring exterior is a mass of concrete, brick and glass panelling. Inside, sky-high ceilings and minimalist design make it more modern art gallery than fast-food shrine. I pass giant noodle-pot casts and a life-sized sculpture of Ando himself to reach the gleaming workroom of the Chicken Ramen factory.
Minutes later I’m in an apron and hairnet, along with a throng of excited Japanese families eager to create their very own ramen from scratch. A squadron of workers whizz about at lightning speed, guiding us through the various steps of kneading, shaping and flavouring dough before it’s ready to feed through high-tech noodle cutters.
Somewhat overcome by the pungent scents of chicken broth and sesame oil permeating the room, we are whisked off to where our fresh noodle strands are being crisped into perfectly uniformed deep-fried bricks. It’s an extravagant, fat-boosting finale that elicits whoops of glee from my fellow noodle-makers.
The rest of the museum offers a mind-boggling array of noodle-related activities. There’s a workshop for pot design, where you can also pick out your preferred flavours and toppings. Upstairs, lunchtime food stalls sell steaming ramen variations from around the globe. Noodle memorabilia and rather abstract noodle-themed art are on display in an exhibition corridor. There’s even a cinema screening a dramatised version of Ando’s life from zero to hero.
His final feat, I learn, was to invent vacuum-packed noodles for astronauts. Apparently he ate his own original Chicken Ramen nearly every day until he died aged 96. If that’s not an advert for slurping down these instant edibles, I don’t know what is.