On entering the minimalist five-story cube opposite the Yokohama Cosmoworld ferris wheel in Minato Mirai, it’s hard to believe that the huge white-walled atrium, with its monumental wooden staircase and beech floors, is not the entrance to a modern-art museum. The blurb in the museum’s guide, too, seems at odds with what visitors may be expecting: “This interactive museum is designed to stir the creativity and curiosity within every child and provide a rich educational experience.”

And there I was thinking it was all about noodles.

The Cup Noodles Museum, which opened in September, will be a shock for anyone who assumes a museum with such a name would simply be about cheap and cheerful food. And really, who wouldn’t think that? Nissin noodles are world-famous for being a delicious, no-fuss snack. But, it seems, this museum is about more than simple noodly goodness.

The focus of the new museum, which takes its name from Nissin founder Momofuku Ando’s invention (see sidebar), is not the product itself, but rather the inspiration and the process of creation behind Cup Noodle.

Up the grand staircase to the second floor is the entrance to the museum proper. First stop is the Instant Noodles History Cube, where the walls are lined with Nissin noodle varieties arranged in chronological order — from the 1958 genesis of Chikin Ramen through the Cup Noodle, Donbei Udon and UFO Yakisoba series of instant noodles, to instant pasta and international varieties including Maggi noodles. In all, over 3,000 products are on display, making it a popular photo op for noodle nuts.

Also on the second floor are the Momofuku Theater, where a CG film tells of Ando’s rise to noodle royalty; a reconstruction of Momofuku’s Work Shed, where the man spent a year perfecting his instant noodle technique; the Momofuku Ando Story wall; and the Creative Thinking Boxes that highlight Ando’s Six Key Ideas for creativity.

But the third floor is where things get fun. First is My Cup Noodles Factory, where you can create your own personalized cup ramen with the flavors of your choice. After buying an empty cup for ¥300 from a vending machine, visitors sit at one of many round child-height tables equipped with sets of colored markers. When I visited the museum I shared a table with a family from Yokohama, who were deeply engrossed in the art of noodle-cup decoration. The two kids were obviously enjoying themselves and seemed to know what flavors they wanted, as the designs on their cups included pictures of fish and other creatures. My own design left a little to be desired.

Handing my cup to an assistant in the kitchen/production line, the secret of how noodles are added to the cup was revealed — one of Ando’s great innovations. Rather than dropping noodles into the cup, the cup is placed upside-down over a bunch of noodles premolded into a tapering cylinder shape that fits snuggly in the center of each cup. With the turn of a wheel, my cup was locked and loaded and I moved on to choose the flavor and ingredients.

From the four flavors I selected classic Cup Noodle (the others are Seafood, Chilli Tomato and Curry), and from the 12 ingredients I chose chicken, pork, spring onion and, just because it looked so cute, discs of steamed fish-paste cake bizarrely imprinted with Nissin’s Hiyoko-chan chicken mascot. The cup was then sealed with a paper foil lid and vacuum packed.

Also on the third floor is the highly popular Chicken Ramen Factory, where visitors can make their own Chikin Ramen using the same technique that Ando invented in his work shed. On the day I visited, the two kitchen areas were full of children wearing free Hinoko-chan bandannas, happily mixing, rolling and cutting their noodles into shape to be deep-fried by the staff and packaged to take home. No chance for me, however, as the factory is usually booked full three months in advance!

On the fourth floor is the Cup Noodles Park, where kids can let off some steam in a playground modeled after the noodle manufacturing process. And no museum dedicated to noodles would be complete without the opportunity to actually eat some.

Instead of simply munching Nissin instant noodles in the World Noodles Road Noodles Bazaar on the fourth floor, you can sample eight varieties of noodles that Ando tasted during his world travels. I was pleased to see they had Malaysian laksa, which I had along with Indonesian mie goreng, Thai pho and Chinese Lanzhou beef ramen — each only ¥300 for a small bowl.

After an afternoon of noodle exploration, my stomach was full and my mind was brimming with creative potential. Stopping in the gift store on the way out, I thought they should have a T-shirt that read “Use your noodle.” But I guess that’s one idea Nissin hasn’t had yet.

Cup Noodle Museum: 2-3-4 Shinko, Naka-ku, Yokohama; (045) 345-0918. Nearest stations: Minatomirai, Bashamichi. Open Weds.-Mon. 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (last admission 5 p.m.), closed Tues. and some holidays. For more information, visit www.cupnoodles-museum.jp.

Taking noodles where none have gone before

If it wasn’t for Momofuku Ando (1910-2007), lunch for millions of culinary-challenged students around the world would be much more difficult.

In 1958, working out of a small backyard shed in Ikeda, Osaka, Ando invented the world’s first instant noodles. He’d spent a year trying to perfect his technique with no success, but after seeing his wife deep-frying tempura, Ando had a “eureka” moment, realizing that if he deep-fried noodles they could be quickly rehydrated later. Chikin Ramen was born, and his invention kick-started the “instant” food industry.

A decade later, after seeing supermarket managers he visited in the United States breaking Chikin Ramen into cups of hot water, he was inspired to create Cup Noodle in 1971. Then, in 2005 Ando took things to new heights with Space Ram — noodles that astronaut Soichi Noguchi could eat in zero gravity.

Ando, who didn’t get his start in business until he was 48 and was still inventing into his 90s, proved that it’s never to late to try something new. As he himself was known to say, “Look at things from every angle,” and “never give up.”

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