TAKAMATSU, Kagawa Pref. — As a native of a prefecture famous for Sanuki “udon” (wheat noodles), Kazutoshi Tao thought udon was a simple component of daily life — until he visited a place where customers whip up their own variety.
From outside, the place — smack in the middle of Kagawa farmland — looks like a barn. It houses a noodle factory, perhaps the farthest thing from an eatery one could imagine.
People eat udon here on condition that they do everything themselves, from heating the noodles to returning the emptied bowls to the counter.
What impressed the 44-year-old Tao, who runs Hot Capsule Co., a company that publishes various local magazines, was the high quality of the noodles on offer.
But figures indicate that this should not have been surprising. According to the Food Agency, Kagawa Prefecture used about 40,000 tons of flour to make udon in fiscal 1999, accounting for about 16 percent of national consumption.
People in Kagawa — which has a population of about 1 million — consume a bowl of udon at least once a day, if not more.
Upon learning that there are about 700 shops serving udon in the prefecture, Tao formed a team to explore these shops, some of which were known only by a handful of locals.
A series of reports started to appear in one of his magazines seven years ago. These were eventually compiled into a four-volume book titled “Osorubeki Sanuki Udon” (“Awesome Sanuki Udon”), drawing people from even outside the prefecture to out-of-the-way udon eateries. The first two volumes were recently released as paperbacks and are available nationwide.
“Although the people of Kagawa like udon and eat it a lot, most of them have only visited about 10 shops,” said Tao, who himself has eaten at about 500 shops so far. “The revelation that there is such a wide variety of udon and udon shops in the prefecture has drawn people’s attention.”
While roughly 60 percent of the udon eateries in Kagawa are normal restaurants, the remainder are self-service varieties, some of which have their customers order the amount of udon desired and specify other preferences at the counter and then carry the bowl to the table, while others get them to heat up the udon themselves.
There are even a few places where customers are required to chop spring onions themselves to put on their udon as a seasoning.
“The variety of udon shops in the prefecture shows that Sanuki udon is deeply rooted in the everyday lives of the people,” Tao said.
Sanuki udon also appeals to the pocketbook. One bowl of regular udon with no topping, or “kake” udon, costs about 160 yen. Even tempura udon costs only 500 yen. People here usually eat udon with various toppings and side dishes, such as cooked vegetables, omelets and rice balls.
Tao argued that what sets Sanuki udon apart is the noodle itself.
“While other types of udon are ranked by the combination of noodle, soup, seasonings and toppings in the bowl, the benchmark for Sanuki udon is the noodle,” he said.
As udon always tastes best immediately after it is made, good shops always provide “uchi-tate,” or fresh udon. Tao claimed that he can taste the difference between uchi-tate noodles and those even just 10 minutes old.
While about 20 to 30 udon shops newly open in Kagawa every year, about the same number close, mainly because the owner and the employees become too old to continue the work.
“The job itself is not very appealing to young people, as it is pretty tough work. It is true that many shops lack successors,” Tao said.
An official of a prefectural union of udon-makers agreed that a lack of successors is a definite problem for the trade.
But Tao said he is not too pessimistic, as he believes new and innovative ways to carry on the tradition will be devised, as Sanuki udon is a part of the lives of the locals.
“The industry is not for tourists. As long as Kagawa people continue to eat Sanuki udon, the industry will evolve and never die.”