Museums Most ODD 1

by Julian Ryall
ghibli For a “different” day out, try musing bugs, ramen and animation at these temples of niche and fascinating collections.

Hayao Miyazaki wants visitors to get lost in his museum. There are no set routes, staircases and passageways come and go and children and adults alike are encouraged to explore from the moment they step inside the Ghibli Museum. 

The brainchild of Japan’s most famous animated movie director, the museum is wonderfully unconventional. Children can play on a huge stuffed cat from Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro, a towering robot soldier stands in the roof garden, and the rooms on the first floor that are called “Where a film is born” are a child’s dream.

Cluttered with cameras, model aircraft, toy cars, chests of gadgets, a writing desk is ready for a filmmaker to start a storyboard sketch. From the ceiling hangs a flying dinosaur; the walls are covered with images from some of Miyazaki’s most famous works, including “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” “Princess Mononoke” and “Howl’s Moving Castle.”

Ghibli Museum

Ghibli Museum

Miyazaki won an Academy Award for Spirited Away in 2003 and his latest offering, Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea, was a hit as soon as it appeared in cinemas here last year.

Before the museum opened in October 2001, Miyazaki said he wanted to build a museum “that is interesting and which relaxes the soul,” and a place “where those seeking enjoyment can enjoy, those seeking to ponder can ponder, and those seeking to feel can feel.”

The director was particularly keen to show the work that goes into producing a movie to inspire his visitors. That ambition has been clearly achieved and the museum now operates an entry system that limits visitors to 2,400 people a day and tickets must be purchased in advance and are for specific times and dates.

The museum includes a theater where short films are screened, an outdoor patio with a working hand pump, a cafe and a shop.

Yokohama Ramen Museum

Yokohama Ramen Museum

Eating is taken very seriously in Japan, and perhaps no dish is more important than ramen. The bowl of steaming noodles topped with slices of meat, boiled egg, vegetables or myriad other ingredients was first tasted in Japan by 17th-century samurai Mito Komon, but it was not until around 1900, when Chinese chefs arrived in Japan in large numbers, that the dish became a staple. Towns and cities across Japan vied to produce their own unique taste. And combining the country’s unending desire to innovate with the love of food, it was inevitable that a Japanese would be the first to invent, way back in 1958, the first instant noodles.

The Shin Yokohama Ramen Museum pays homage to all things related to ramen, displaying machines used to turn out noodles, bowls, noren curtains from outside some of the estimated 200,000 ramen shops across the country, and instant noodle packages from all corners of the globe.

Yokohama Ramen Museum

Yokohama Ramen Museum

There are numerous reasons why ramen is so popular in Japan, but one of the main ones is that it’s a cheap and hearty meal, according to the museum. The dish also contains the three elements that Japanese people like in their meals; carbohydrates, heat and oiliness.

And while other food tastes almost exactly the same wherever you try it in Japan, ramen from Sapporo is very different from that in Hakodate, Morioka or Osaka as every city tries to make its ramen stand out by being different. 

But looking at all the ramen-related exhibits inevitably makes a visitor hungry. On the basement level, the museum has recreated an authentic working-class district that is stuck in 1958 and where visitors can choose from eight ramen shops, each of which prides themselves on a unique taste. The square also includes a bar and an old-fashioned candy store, but it is for the ramen that connoisseurs flock here. The museum stays open until 11 p.m. to cater to the late-night crowd, blurring the lines between museum, theme park and shopping mall restaurant courtyard.

Satoru Kamegai founded the Meguro Parasitological Museum some 50 years ago to educate people about the dangers of bugs that were at that time endemic in Japan.

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More than 50,000 people visit the museum every year, according to spokesman Seiichi Kamegai, admiring hundreds of parasites that have infested humans and animals alike, stored in jars of formaldehyde. Some are small creatures that have bored their way into living tissue in animals, others have caused gross deformities in people. Pride of place is given to a tapeworm that grew to a length of nearly 9 meters inside the stomach of a Yokohama man who had eaten the wrong trout.

“Many people visit us because they are curious,” says Kamegai. “Try to think about parasites without a feeling of fear and take the time to learn about their wondrous and resourceful way of life.” ❖  

The Shin Yokohama Ramen Museum
2-14-21 Shinyokohama, Kohoku-ku, Yokohama
Tel: 045 471 050  

Studio Ghibli Museum
1-1-83 Simorenjaku, Mitaka-shi, Tokyo
Tel: 0570 055 777  

Meguro Parasitological Museum
4-1-1 Shimo Meguro, Meguro-ku, Tokyo
Tel: 03 3716 1264