Now that ramen has taken its place alongside sushi as the world's favorite Japanese food, it's easy to forget what the noodle landscape was like just a couple of decades ago. Back in the 1990s, foreigners knew ramen — if they knew it at all — as cheap fuel for all-night study sessions or as a belly-filler for sorry bachelors.

In Japan, too, the dish was best-loved by students and salarymen, and ramen shops tended to be ramshackle affairs. Though enthusiasts were vocal about championing regional specialties — from the rich tonkotsu (pork-bone) soup of Kyushu to the warming miso-based bowls of Hokkaido — ramen had a down-market appeal and a decidedly ordinary reputation.

It was into this noodle-deprived milieu that the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum opened in 1994. The concept was daring: to give visitors a taste of the best ramen from around Japan by gathering a cluster of popular shops in a single setting. As Masahiro Nakano, a PR rep for the "museum," says, "Our mission has been to spread ramen to the world."