Crazy About Sanuki Udon Noodles! – 1
In the late 90s, udon was promoted with a prefecture campaign known as “Udon 88.” On Shikoku Island, there are four prefectures including Kagawa, and there are 88 designated temples in the prefectures relating to the great Buddhist teacher Saint Kobo-daishi. The temples are collectively called the “Shikoku 88 Locations.” Visiting all 88 sites is a pilgrimage in which both religious and non-religious people participated. This udon campaign coopted this pilgrimage and selected 88 udon noodle places from Kagawa Prefecture. It was easy for Japanese to associate the religious 88 temples with an 88 udon restaurant tour! After this campaign, many people undertook a “pilgrimage” of Sanuki udon restaurants.
Another aspect that boosted Sanuki udon’s popularity is its associated self-service style. Originally, Sanuki udon was self-service at almost all restaurants: You would pick up a bowl, place a bunch of freshly boiled noodles in it, rinse the noodles in hot water with a mesh strainer, throw on your chosen condiments, splash on some soup or soy sauce, and take it to a cashier. After paying for it, you would take a seat and tuck in.
As most udon restaurants were small, family-owned places, only a few people would be available for customer service. The reason for the meal’s low price might have partly been because of this system. Those from outside Kagawa used to be surprised that they had to sousing the noodles by themselves in a big hot water pot. After you submerge the noodles, you would strain the hot water and place the noodles into a warm bowl. You won’t have this experience in Tokyo.
In extreme cases, you might get to the cashier to find that they have run out of green onion, and be asked by an elderly owner to head out backyard and pick some for yourself. Even after going out to pick them, you still have the job of chopping them by yourself. This DIY attitude was not unusual, if not common. Today, the extreme self-service style is quite rare.
Kagawans are very fussy about their soul food, udon. Many new udon restaurants open every year, but survival is not easy. And, unlike in my childhood, the competition is not just from other udon vendors nowadays. Kagawans are capable of discerning the quality of udon. If you are a new udon restaurant and fail to roll out anything but the best noodles or make a less than perfect broth, word would soon get around. What’s scary is that the evaluation of udon is accurate and the rumor travels faster than social media here. If you see a long line before an udon place at lunch time, it is usually a good sign.
Thanks to the udon boom, some older restaurants were able to wholly renovate and/or expand their restaurants. Some restaurants have become national chains, and others target only tourists with higher prices. But my instinct says a small, classic and family-owned udon place located in an indistinctive back alley is better. In the part two, I will introduce three udon places as my personal recommendation.
Text by Motomi Takahashi
Where is Kagawa Prefecture?
How to get to Kagawa Prefecture from Tokyo
🚄: Take the Sanyo Shinkansen bullet train form Tokyo. It will take about three hours to the JR Okayama Station. Change to the Marine Liner to the JR Sakaide Station.
🚌: Take a night bus from the JR Tokyo Station to the JR Takamatsu Station. It will take about 12 hours, during which time you can sleep in the bus.
You can take a local JR train to move from Sakaide to Marugame and Zentsuji.