All hail the curious creation that is the Cup of Noodles. How many have not had a cup at some point?
Japan is known for many things: Karaoke, emojiis, Shinkansen, Hello Kitty, robots. And yet, the unassuming Cup of Noodles is arguably one of Japan’s greatest inventions.
It is certainly the most affordable. Last year Nissin Food, the parent company of Cup of Noodles, reported over 50 billion units sold. That’s a lot of instant ramen.
That a packaged product could have such success might seem baffling; Japan is a nation takes such pride in an item’s freshness. It always amazes me how Japan manages to do two ends of a spectrum so well; you can have an elaborate tea ceremony, or you can have a hot or cold beverage dispensed from a state of the art vending machine.
The same applied to ramen; you could either enjoy it in a fancy bowl at a Michelin ranked restaurant or in a humble cup.
I took a local train to Yokohama, then walked the mile and a half to the museum. Approaching the Cup of Noodles Museum I passed Cosmo Clock 21, the world’s largest clock.
From the outside, the museum appears to be a multi-story, windowless square block. Inside, it has the sleek lines and lighting of a modern art museum, the stark white walls and wide open spaces punctuated by pops of tomato red.
It costs ¥500 ($3.67) to enter. The earliest reservation I could book for the star attraction – designing your very own custom cup – was for 12:30. To my disappointment, the Chicken Ramen Factory, where visitors could kneed and make their own noodles, was still closed, presumably due to COVID concerns.
Behind the Invention
Post World War II, Momofuku Ando, creator of the instant ramen, sought to make an inexpensive and convenient food for the working class. Although it is now known a inexpensive, in 1958 a it was a luxury item that exceeded the cost of a fresh bowl. His Chiken Ramen was a wild success.
During a fact-finding trip to the U.S. in the 60’s, he observed supermarket executives breaking up the Chicken Ramen noodles, sticking the pieces in a cup before pouring hot water in. And with that, the idea for the Cup of Noodles was born.
His final invention at the age of 95 was creating Space Ramen for astronauts to enjoy. The wall that highlighted key accomplishments of his long life ended with a glowing tribute in English from the New York Times.
Ramen noodles have earned Mr. Ando an eternal place in the pantheon of human progress.
I had to read the words several times to properly appreciate them. Similarly, I had to pause at a collage of him featured alongside Einstein, the Wright Brothers, Madame Curie, Beethoven, Galileo, and several other luminaries.
I am certain his placement has generated debate.
What is indisputable is that his invention of an easy and affordable dish had made him a national hero. A widely cited 2000 poll showed that the Japanese viewed this as their country’s best invention.
Given this, it makes sense that the museum places as much attention on the values of innovation, curiosity and tenacity as it does on the food itself.
Building My Own Custom Cup
As the appointed 12:30 reservation time drew closer I went to the third floor and showed my ticket.
A woman ushered me to a wall where vending machines dispensed ¥400 ($2.94) cups. To the right were dozens of tables with colored markers. COVID precautions were in full effect; there were plastic partitions on each table. As expected, the bulk of guests consisted of families. One had the sense that the adults were enjoying drawing on their just as much as their children. Members of the staff moved quickly from table to table and sterilized markers between use.
A great deal of thought goes into the customization of each cup. Sneaking a peak at my fellow decorators it seems characters and animals are the most popular motif.
I drew Mount Fuji on a clear sunny day, with cherry blossoms to the right and fall foliage on the left.
Finally, I wrote the date. No fewer than three employees gently reminded me that the food must be consumed within a ”gatsu” (month).
I got in a short line that was moving with impressive efficiency. Behind a wall of clear glass, staff in white and tomato red assembled each individual package. Microphone headsets allowed them to communicate with the designer.
Fresh fried noodles bricks came off the line. She inverted a cup over the ramen brick and instructed me to rotate the wheel six times to flip the cup with the ramen right-side up. From here, the cup traveled to the customization phase.
We could choose four of 12 ingredients: tiny fish cakes shaped like Hiyoko-chan (the company’s mascot), garlic chips, green beans, cheese, crab-flavored fish cakes, corn, kimchi, shrimp, minced pork, egg, green onion, and high protein minced pork.
Baby shrimp, fish paste, cheese, and green onion.
My package came down hot from the shrink-wrapping. I felt absurdedly proud of my concoction. The final station involved moving to a side table and using an air pump to provide a cushion for the precious creation.
The floor above the interactive exhibit hosts a fun “Noodles Bazaar”. It’s a quirky space that does a convincing job mimicking night food stalls. The stalls features noodles from different countries in Asia plus Italy; all places Momofuku Ando had travelled in his quest to learn how noodles were consumed outside of Japan.
China: Lanzhou Beef Ramen
Korea: Cold ramen
Thailand: Tom Yum Goong Noodles
Indonesia: Mie Goreng
From my colorful plastic stool I slurped down a bowl of spicy Tom Yum and coconut water, grinning at the piped-in sound of motorcycle traffic. The noodles did indeed evoke a feeling of comfort, of safety.
Momofuku Ando was really on to something.
If you live in Japan, this is a fun place to take guests, family members, or young kids. If you’re traveling to Japan and want to create your own cup, bear in mind that the inflated bag that protects your custom Cup of Noodles will take up quite a bit of space in your luggage. All the same, it makes for a fun souvenir.
To order food at the “Noodle Bazaar”, you first order your selection from a ticket machine located near your stall. Bowls go for 400 yen, drinks for 200 yen. You then present your ticket at the stall, and within minutes your meal is ready to go.