There seems to be a noodle shop almost everywhere you look in Japan. All varieties can be had at almost any hour and any cost. They may be ubiquitous, but appreciating different noodles as the seasons change from hot to cold is what makes them special.
When the hottest weeks of the year descend on Japan, there are some refreshing favorites worth savoring — as long as autumn remains just around the corner. And this is especially true for vegetarians: Summer is one of the best times to enjoy noodles in Japan. When served cold, the ingredients are uncomplicated, relatively mystery-free and often there’s no meat or fish broth to contend with.
Buckwheat soba noodles tend to take the spotlight over white, plain-wheat udon noodles when it’s hot, but I happen to be more partial to the way the latter are thick and springy.
In summer, udon pairs amazingly well with sudachi, a lime-like citrus fruit. Squeezed over cold udon noodles with grated daikon radish and a bit of shoyu will perk you up like a glass of lemonade on a hot day. This dish is cheap, too — a regular-sized serving is ¥350 at self-service noodle restaurant Marugame Seimen, a chain store with 65 locations in Tokyo (www.marugame-seimen.com/menu)
Other options are tororo (grated sticky yam) on top of shoyu udon or standard cold udon served on a basket zaru-style, which you can dip in cold sauce (zaru udon or soba is offered year-round at most udon or soba restaurants). As always, swap out the standard dashi dipping sauce for plain or diluted shoyu if you want to avoid fish extract.
A chilled variation on ramen that is often suitable for vegetarians is hiyashi chūka (although often you might need to take the strips of ham out yourself).
If you are after a more filling option, with more ingredients piled on compared to the simpler zaru udon, it might be worth taking a trip to vegan-friendly Chabuzen in Shimokitazawa (6-16-20, Daita, Setagaya-ku; 080 6603 8587) for their impressive menu of spicy meat-free noodle dishes.
Chilled sōmen (very thin, white wheat noodles) is another favorite of mine, though it seems to be a bit of an oddball in the noodle world — it’s often used in novelty eating situations, such as nagashi sōmen where the noodles flow down a bamboo tube and you catch them with your chopsticks. Though less common as a main dish in restaurants, there are some specialty shops sprinkled around if you look for them. In Tokyo’s Higashi-Nakano neighborhood there is Awayaiccho (Nakano 1-58-11; 03-3363-7234), and one dish worth venturing there for has thin slices of sudachi layered over cold sōmen. It’s hard to imagine that this could be anything but the perfect noodle dish for the remaining summer days.
For those days when you can’t be bothered to go too far out into the sweltering heat, pick up dried sōmen from your local convenience store or supermarket. The thin noodles only need 90 seconds of boiling, then drain and rinse, throw in a large bowl of ice water and dip noodles in shiitake mushroom-based dashi — it’s the perfect fix on a hot summer day.