The search for the perfect bowl of ramen: Embarking on a quest to find the perfect anything is a fool’s errand for all but the most steely of hearts, and yet the pursuit of Japan’s most beloved dish has claimed scores of victims over the decades, from TikTokers to celebrity chefs like David Chang to widow-turned-Spaghetti-western-hero Tampopo in the eponymous 1985 comedy film. There are, after all, quite a number of judging criteria: The wheat noodle alone can be evaluated on a four-dimensional axis of springiness, chewiness, thickness, and freshness; the broth, with its saltiness and richness, tests the principle of always keeping things in good proportion; the custardy soft-boiled, open-faced eggs, fatty pork, and scallion garnish are all necessary accouterments; and the elusive X-factor distinguishes a good bowl of ramen from a great one. Oft-overlooked by gourmands the world over, the bowl itself is the condition of possibility for the delectable noodle soup experience.
The ramen bowl is rarely a flashy art object, oftentimes a mass-produced thing of plastic available at dollar stores like Daiso. At hipper restaurants keen on upcharging their patrons, bowls might be made of ceramics, lacquer, and glass. Porcelain donburi (Japanese for “bowls”) used for ramen often share standardized dimensions, shapes, and designs, and 90% of those used in Japan are produced in the Tono area in Gifu prefecture in Honshu, Japan’s main island. A new exhibition titled The Art of the Ramen Bowl at Japan House, a cultural outpost established by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Los Angeles, puts the gustatory pleasures of ramen on hold to indulge in another sensorial experience: the visual gratification of looking at artisanally designed ramen bowls.
A collection of 30 donburi is on display, elegantly set atop rotating wooden pedestals next to spoons, designed by artists, designers, and architects mostly from Japan. Accompanying each bowl is a short statement by its maker. One ramen bowl, designed by designer and calligrapher Katsumi Asaba, is ornamented with a message coded in flag semaphore. His statement recounts the “joy of heavy drinking” in his “younger days,” capping the night with “the best part”: a bowl of ramen.
In a tribute to classic ramen graphic design which he laments is “disappearing,” designer Taku Satoh forged a bowl with traditional Chinese patterns, adorning the exterior with iconic mythic creatures like dragons and phoenixes and rimming the interior with the distinctive rectangular swirl. It is a nod to the origins of ramen, which in the late 19th century emerged out of the cauldrons of Chinese immigrant communities living in the Yokohama Chinatown.
Designer Kenjiro Sano also turned to history in designing his bowl, honoring the centuries-old tradition of mending pottery by healing cracks with golden lacquer — an art called kintsugi. Instead of hiding the imperfections of wear and tear, kintsugi combines the natural beauty of aging and degeneration with a craftsman’s hand to produce something new out of the old. “My hope is that by bringing together different parts, I have created a bowl with special character — connecting various patterns and materials, such as polka dots and pinstripes,” he wrote in his artist statement. The bowl is reminiscent of vintage patched-up blue jeans — Sano’s inspiration for its design.
Finally, pop artist Keiichi Tanami’s bowl is an illustration of a college-era memory: As he was eating ramen, a spider fell into his bowl and drowned. If an eater using his bowl finishes his meal without incident, she will find the freakish head of a fantastical, mythological spider at the bottom of the bowl, staring out with long, curled eyelashes, gnarly teeth, fish scales, and even wings, lying in wait in its web. A supercharged spider who can swim, fly, bite, and bat its eyes — it’s a nightmare every arachnophobe has had, and now it can become part of your dining experience.
The exhibition also includes educational sections on the history of ramen, its spread throughout Japan and the world, and Mino, a home ceramics manufacturing powerhouse for over half a millennia. It also showcases a giant ramen bowl produced by food sample manufacturer Iwasaki Mokei, well-known for creating fake foods in Japan.
“Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be beautiful or believe to be useful,” British Arts and Craft artist William Morris is often quoted as saying, though this same philosophy toward everyday art and design has been a traditional Japanese belief for centuries. What better embodiment of utilitarian beauty than specially crafted ramen bowls that allow a feast for all the senses?