It’s early morning in Mitoyo, a small town in Kagawa Prefecture in Shikoku. The sun casts squares of light on the long tables of Udon House where Kanako Harada is preparing to welcome a group of guests from Switzerland and Japan.
Udon House is hard to define. Part guesthouse and tour provider and part culture and cooking class, it’s a full-immersion experience where guests learn about the Sanuki region where udon noodles were born.
Helping Harada prepare are Nobuchika Higashida, a Kagawa native and chief sales officer of Sanuki Menki Co., Ltd and Aino Horii, Harada’s high school friend and invaluable assistant on the Udon House project.
As Harada and Higashida discuss the plan for today’s group of guests at one of the tables, Horii is busy in the adjoined kitchen, stirring pots of steaming dashi and feeding fresh dough through a seimenki (noodle-making) machine.
Harada, Osaka-born but raised in Sapporo, is a former consultant for Rakuten Travel where she focused on promoting rural areas of Japan. Understandably, she’s wary of being seen as a gentrifying outsider in this close-knit region.
“I was working with local governments and their main issue was an aging, rural population that didn’t have the time or skills to market their amazing products outside of Japan. They thought they had very little to offer. A big part of my job was convincing them that this wasn’t the case.”
New to udon making, she’s forthright about her reliance on the expertise of udon natives like Higashida and her desire to commit long-term to the area.
“I felt consulting and online marketing wasn’t really helping and it was time to start my own business. I wanted to take some personal risk and fully commit to making a difference,” says Harada.
A chance meeting with Hima Furuta, a project designer and CEO of Umari Inc. solidified Udon House as a concept. The pair began searching for akiya (abandoned houses) and found one with a front room that was perfect for cooking classes and events, and also conveniently located near Mitoyo’s Motoyama Station.
Harada originally planned to manage the refurbishment and design of Udon House before handing off the operation to a local expert. But after investing so much in the program and the house itself, she decided to relocate to Mitoyo, live in the house, and run the project herself.
“I realized I had designed this beautiful space and no one was going to run it for me. So I said, ‘Fine. I’ll do it myself.'”
Harada describes Udon House as a gateway into the region, one that uses the local speciality of udon to facilitate deeper cultural explorations.
“We’re introducing guests to Sanuki (Kagawa Prefecture) through its signature food — udon. Then adding activities with locals to help them understand the region and its people.”
The group of Swiss and Japanese guests finally arrive to spend three days partaking in udon-making classes, early morning “udon hopping,” meet-and-greets with local growers to pick their own vegetables, a boat trip to the Shishijima island fishing village, and a final sunset tour at the famously beautiful Chichibugahama Beach. It’s a full itinerary with a deceptively relaxed pace.
Udon House guest, Lorenz Muster, a Swiss restaurateur and owner of Sala of Tokyo in Zurich, came to Udon House to explore the viability of bringing udon to a ramen-saturated restaurant scene.
“I think there’s a chance for udon to become popular abroad, but you’d have to do it right. Really understand how to make it and then adjust it for the tastes of each country. Coming here was a great introduction,” he says.
Enthusiastic people like Muster are exactly the sort of guest Harada had hoped for while planning Udon House.
“I’d like visitors to have fun, but also to leave with a deeper appreciation for Kagawa and Sanuki udon. I want them to be impressed and knowledgeable enough to be able to explain things in detail to their friends and family back home,” says Harada.
Udon House is located in Mitoyo, Kagawa Prefecture, and is easily accessible via Shikoku’s Takamatsu Airport, by train from Okayama or bus from Osaka. More information can be found at udonhouse.jp.