Taste-testing kyoseiten ramen noodles.

Walking around Japan, you may sometimes come across a station plaza or other event space with banners announcing that they’re having a kyoseiten. For example, here’s a photo of a kyoseiten that was going on last week in downtown Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station, the closest station to SoraNews24 headquarters.

▼ 矯正展 = kyoseiten

Kyoseiten directly translates to “correction exhibition.” However, the items on display, and being sold, aren’t refurbished products or factory seconds that have had their defects addressed. No, in the case of kyoseiten,“correction” is meant in the same sense as when talking about a correctional institute. In other words, all of the items are made by inmates as part of a prison work and education program.

The most common things you’ll find at a kyoseiten are leather and woodworking items such as wallets, shoulder bags, chairs, and chopsticks. Generally, the craftsmanship is beyond that of pure amateurs and students in shop classes, but not on the level of high-end professional artisans. The inmate-made products tend to be simple in design with only basic features, but not without a certain straightforward, rustic appeal.

At the kyoseiten we stumbled across in Shinjuku, tables and racks full of bags took up most of the floor space. As we looked around, though, we spotted something we don’t ever remember seeing at a kyoseiten: ramen noodles made by convicts.

The packs of dry ramen noodles were arranged in little piles, and selling for just 200 yen (US$1.40), with three servings per packet. According to the package, they contained chukamen, straight, thin noodles like the ones most commonly used for noodle soups in China, but also popular with Japanese-style ramen broth and toppings. In addition to standard ramen, the back of the package said that the noodles can be also be used for making hiyashi chuka (a cold noodle dish with minimal broth), tsukemen (in which the noodles are served by themselves and dipped into a separate bowl of broth before each bite), and even yakisoba (ramen noodles stir-fried with meat and vegetables). The packaging also told us that these noodles were made by inmates at the prison located in Konan Ward in Yokohama, Kanagawa Prefecture.

▼ 中華麺 = chukamen

To be honest, we weren’t sure what to expect in terms of quality with our prison-made noodles. On the one hand, dried ramen isn’t exactly gourmet, but it’s also a section of the noodle market where the competition is intense, since it includes instant and cup ramen. Competition, as they say, improves the breed, and with multiple major Japanese companies constantly researching and developing new recipes and techniques in an effort to make their ramen more satisfying than their rivals’, it wouldn’t be a shock if the budget and resources afforded to a prison work program limited it to churning out some less-than-stellar noodles, especially when they’re selling for just 200 yen a pack.

That price, it turns out, doesn’t quite tell the whole story, however. When we opened the package of prison noodles, we’d been expecting there to be some sort of powdered or liquid soup base with which to make the broth, since they’re usually included in dry ramen packs like this. Inside of our pack of prison noodles, though, were noodles, and nothing else.

In a way, this turned out to be a blessing in disguise. In our pantry we had a pack of Marutai Ramen, a popular and tasty brand of dry ramen noodles made by law-abiding private-sector citizens, and which come with enough broth base for multiple servings.

This let us prepare two bowls of ramen, one using the prison noodles, and one using the Marutai ones, but with the same broth for both. We also kept the toppings we added the same. The only difference was the noodles, and since Marutai’s are also thin and straight, we’d eliminated all possible differences except for the quality of the noodles themselves, which would let us see how the prisoner-made ones measured up.

The prison noodle packaging said to cook them for three to four minutes (we split the difference and cooked them for three and a half), and then to rinse them in cold water. Once we had both bowls of ramen prepared, we lined them up side by side. Can you tell which is which?

The prison-made noodles are…

…the ones in the bowl on the left.

Really, they looked just as delicious as the Marutai ones, so much so that we had to make a mental note of which was which, so that we wouldn’t forget and mix them up.

But the real thing we wanted to know is how these noodles tasted. We took a bit of the prison noodles, and…it was ramen. There was nothing strange, shocking, or off about them – just good, satisfying noodles.

That’s not to say that they were prefect, though. Like we said, the directions said to cook the noodles for three to four minutes, and we went with three and a half. After eating a bowl, though, we’re pretty sure they’d have been better if we’d stopped at three minutes flat. Three and a half minutes had left them on the overcooked and overly soft side, and they didn’t quite have that al dente sensation of firmness giving way to flexibility as you bite through, which is really what ramen connoisseurs like best in thin, straight noodles like these. That said, the prison noodles tasted just fine, and perfect texture really is something that’s hard to achieve when starting with dry ramen.

Turning to the Marutai noodles, we found their texture and flavor to be better than the prison noodles, but only slightly. So even though the prison noodles aren’t perfect, they’re still a perfectly viable option for a quick, hot meal.

Really, the only major drawback is that the prison noodles don’t come with any broth stock. Thinking back to what the packaging said, though, it recommends the noodles for use as ramen, hiyashi chuka, tsukemen, and yakisoba, all of which use different types of broth or sauce, so maybe that’s why there’re no such seasonings included, because they don’t know exactly what you’re going to use it for. And true enough, we haven’t decided how to use our remaining two servings of prison noodles either, but we have a hunch that they won’t let us down.

Photos © SoraNews24
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