If eating noodles first thing in the morning doesn’t wake you up, the sound of other diners slurping certainly will. Soba buckwheat noodles and udon (chunky white wheat noodles) date back to the Nara (710-794) and Heian (794-1185) periods; ramen was introduced from China in the 1880s.
In Shikoku, famous for its Sanuki udon, noodles are eaten all day — including for breakfast. A good place to experience this noodle breakfast is Oniyanma, a shack near Tokyo’s Gotanda Station that serves Sanuki udon with a light iriko (dried sardine) broth.
The U-shaped counter overlooks an open kitchen where noodles are boiled and battered ingredients are turned to tempura in a hot bath of oil. Roughly 10 customers can squeeze into the restaurant, and most mornings you’ll be slurping shoulder to shoulder. Diners frequent Oniyanma for its unassuming, chewy noodles and the variety of toppings.
The noodles here are best served cold with toriten (tempura-fried chicken), a classic Shikoku topping. If you are hungry, you can also add chikuwa (grilled fish cake) tempura or an onsen tamago (soft-boiled egg). The generous pile of green onions that comes on top of each bowl is pungent — make sure you’ve got some mints before heading to work.
A stark contrast to Oniyanma is Nezu Takajo, a teuchi (handcut) soba restaurant in the quiet backstreets of Tokyo’s Yanaka neighborhood. The dining room has three wooden tables set low on a floor covered in zabuton (floor cushions).
Soba here is served hot and cold, but aficionados will recommend the latter as it brings out the aroma, texture and flavor of the buckwheat. I couldn’t decide between Nezu Takajo’s two styles: seiro (delicate noodles served with a dipping sauce) or miyama (thicker, rustic-style noodles). Thankfully, there is an option to try a half-serving of each. The miyama is hearty and rich, with a fine, sandy texture. Toward the end of the meal, staff will bring out some soba-yu, the cloudy water in which the noodles were boiled. Add some to the dipping sauce and drink it like a soup for a warm end to the meal.
For a less conventional noodle breakfast, there are some ramen shops that open early. Taroken is a 24-hour shop near Shin-Koenji Station that serves classic Tokyo-style shoyu ramen. Its thin noodles are crowned with green onions, wakame (seaweed), menma (bamboo shoots), and chashu (braised pork belly).
Taroken occupies a skinny building with a wood-paneled interior and lights reminiscent of a fishing cabin. There is standing space at the counter and two tables to the side. Order from the vending machine and advise the chef who takes your ticket whether you want your broth kotteri (rich) or sappari (light), and shoyu koi (rich) or usui (light). The chef will ladle broth in a bowl before pulling pork fat from the boiling stockpot and pushing it through a mesh into the mix. A hearty, warming meal.
If you are not already having noodles for breakfast, take a cue from Shikoku — it’s a noisy, comforting start to the day.
Nezu Takajo 2-32-8 Nezu, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo; 03-5834-1239; open Wed.-Sun. 7:30-9 a.m. (L.O.); Oniyanma 1-6-3 Nishi-Gotanda, Shinagawa-ku, Tokyo; 7-3 a.m. (until midnight on Sunday); Taroken 2-16-13 Koenji-Minami, Suginami-ku, Tokyo; 03-3312-8634; 24 hours