Sushi may be unquestionably the king of Japanese cuisine outside of Japan, but you would be missing out a lot if you come to Japan and only eat sushi.
In Japan Sushi is not everyday food and in general people eat it only once in a while when they celebrate a special occasion.
Ramen is another popular dish a lot of people think of.
In Japan TV shows featuring popular ramen joints are always big hits. You never get enough of ramen guide type of magazines dedicated to must-go or best of ramen restaurants.
Yes, ramen can get addictive and it has to be at top of the list as far as the must-eat food for those visiting Japan.
Then there is udon, not as addictive, greasy and full of hype compared to ramen but it’s hearty noodle that shouldn’t be forgotten when you talk about Japanese food.
What is udon?
Udon is thick wheat noodle usually served in fish and soy sauce based broth. You can eat udon anywhere in Japan, but perhaps it’s easy to spot one at or near train stations.
They are usually cheap and taste ok. If you are cash-strapped or pressed with time, it serves the purpose. But if you had a chance to taste better quality udon, I don’t know if you can go back to that type of place again.
Types of menu available at this type of places are:
Kake udon — just noodle and broth with no topping
Tanuki udon — noodle topped with tempura flake
Kitsune udon — noodle with thinly-sliced fried tofu
Sansai udon — with mountain vegetable
Tempura udon — with tempura toppings like shrimp, squid, vegetable, etc.
These are generic types of udon and you can eat pretty much anywhere in Japan.
If you want to try more authentic udon, then you got to try Sanuki udon.
Sanuki udon originates from Kagawa, one of the prefectures on the island of Shikoku, one of the four major islands of Japan located south of Hiroshima, west of Osaka.
Sanuki udon is known to have more succulent and firm texture than regular udon you can eat everywhere.
In 2011 Kagawa Prefecture announced that it would call itself Udon-ken — Udon Prefecture — as udon has been the staple of the region for years.
Many tourists visit there from all over the country and now 60% of them go there to eat udon.
Udon you eat in Kagawa is generally very cheap and probably you can eat at half the price of, for example, a hot beverage like Non-Fat Frappuccino With Extra Whipped Cream And Chocolate Sauce or whatever it’s called at a famous gourmet coffee chain.
A Little Bit of History
The exact origin of udon is not clearly known but it is said to originate from China. The first udon restaurant was seen in Kagawa — previously called Sanuki region — in late 800s after the monk by the name of Kukai brought back the noodle making technique and equipment to produce noodle from China.
Mild climate, long daylight and flat land of Sanuki region all helped produce high quality flour and salt.
Kagawa is also known as one of the best Iriko or Niboshi (anchovy) producing region in Japan.
Add to that the fact that Ozushima, a small island off the coast of Kagawa, is well-known for soy sauce production.
So, combine all of these and you will get a simple bowl of udon noodle in broth that you cannot eat anywhere else.
Another factor that made udon popular in Sanuki was because the region received little precipitation and often struggled from drought. Hence, rice was expensive and people had to eat udon instead.
Over the years udon has gained popularity even outside the prefecture. Media has written about it and eventually it became regional cuisine and people started visiting Kagawa to eat udon.
Where can you eat Sanuki Udon?
Probably in any big city in Japan you can find a Sanuki Udon restaurant but it’s much more expensive than eating in Shikoku.
In Shikoku you can eat a small bowl of udon at about ￥220–290 ($2–3), which is amazingly cheap. If you like, you can grab various tempura toppings like prawn, squid, egg and vegetable.
But some people say authentic Sanuki udon tastes good even without any toppings because both noodle and broth are of high quality.
That was exactly the case when I visited Kagawa to eat udon. Even when it’s stripped down to minimum — just noodle and broth — I didn’t feel like I needed any accompaniment. It tastes good by itself.
You eat mediocre udon with fried tempura and its quality can be somewhat masked by fried food.
When I went there, one local told me some people there eat it three times a day. I noticed some udon restaurants open at 6 am, so that explains it.
How to get to Takamatsu?
In Takamatsu, the capital of Kagawa, there are said to be more than 900 udon restaurants, so if you’re an udon fan, it’s worth exploring the city.
You can reach Takamatsu via Okayama taking the train called Marine Liner that takes you across the famous bridge, Seto Ohashi. If you are in Osaka, you can take a bus.
From Tokyo, you can take shinkansen to Okayama or fly to Takamatsu. If you are budget conscious, overnight bus could be an option.