Jan 28, 2021
“THERE’S A TAXI WITH AN OVERSIZED BOWL OF UDON on its roof waiting for you,” said the innkeeper of my guesthouse on the shores of southerly Shikoku one foggy morning last March. It’s not a sentence you hear often.
Like ramen and sushi, udon — a thick white toothsome wheat noodle — doesn’t have one provenance in Japan. Regional styles of it are found throughout the country’s 47 prefectures, from clear potato starch Gōsetsu udon in Hokkaido to Okinawan Suba udon made with vegetal ash. But the beloved stout and slippery strands in Kagawa called Sanuki udon, flat and square-cut with chewy texture, have Japanese origins dating back to the 9th century when the monk Kōbō Daishi returned to Shikoku from China and began preaching all things Buddha and udon to an austere Shinto Japan.
Today, Kagawa Prefecture, Japan’s smallest, is arguably the best place to try a bowl. Or seven. And the best way to do that is via the Udon Taxi, a touring service that picks you up at your hotel or station for whistle-stop slurps at local udon joints, allowing you to sample the best Sanuki at the source. From my guesthouse I walked through thick fog and spied the white-gloved and chauffeur-capped driver Tada, a young woman almost smaller than the bowl on the roof. She greeted me with a smile and asked me in perfect English what kind of udon I wanted to try today. “Show me your favorites,” I said, and off we went.
Tada was young and seemed meek, but within minutes of chatting it was clear she knew her noodles. Our first stop was a secret udon joint hidden in the back of a 5th-generation grocery shop called Suzaki Foods Shop. A short line snaked outside the half-timbered merchant building lined with bags of mikan citrus and potted plants. There, bespectacled hipsters sat on benches hunched over small bowls of steaming udon and eyeballed our taxi with suspicion as we rounded the corner. I’m not big on queues, but Tada assured me it moved fast, and right she was. Within one minute, we were inside, next to a black cat purring against a space heater topped with a kettle.
The menu is limited: big or small udon. With raw egg or onsen egg. At the back was a self garnish table with chopsticks, ginger, negi (green onions), and shakers of spicy shichimi. Prices were cheap — ￥400, including a raw egg topping, which added a velvety unctuousness to the toothsome noodles. “Oishi! I could eat a second bowl,” I said to Tada. “Many do,” she smiled, then said “Ready for the next?” This fast-paced eating is one of the things I love about Japan and even in remote Kagawa where the tempo was noticeably slower, meals were gold-star quality but quicksilver fast.
Back in Tada’s taxi, we pushed on. En route, she pointed out her favorite farmers’ market, RyōshinIchi Takase, a handsome brown timber building off Mitoyo’s main drag, which I held in my gaze longingly as we drove past. “Do you want to go inside?” she asked. “I’m your driver. We can go anywhere you want the next two hours.” I did want to go in, so we did. Inside, aproned hawkers were selling colorful daikon, sharp-toothed mizuna greens, bamboo shoots, and of course twist-wire-tied sacks of homemade udon noodles. I sampled some local tempura, nibbled on some yellow and purple carrots, and whisked down several cups of homemade miso and dashi before hopping back in the taxi. I’d visited Shikoku several times before and loved its famous warmth towards foreigners, but Kagawa was especially friendly.
Tada and I were buzzing around on a vibe equal parts errand-running and moveable feast. The next stop was near the train station in the somewhat shabby city of Sakaide, once a hub of salt trading. Cities like Sakaide are typically avoided by foreigners, which is too bad because they’re never short on excellent regional food. The udon shop there was called Okada, and, sadly, it has since closed. But I want to share my experience anyway, to honor them and the many indie restaurants worldwide disappearing at an accelerated pace in the wake of Covid-19.
We entered a lovely 1970’s hole in the wall, with jars of pickled eggs on the counter, a mounted TV playing Japanese talk shows, and a few solo salarymen toiling over late lunch bowls. The udon here swam like schools of nesting eels in umami-rich broth. Bowls are topped with paper-thin wrinkles of fatty Japanese beef and a generous handful of neon green negi rings. I asked the cooks for a raw egg in Japanese — “Tamago onegaishimasa?” — and they were so surprised and pleased, not just because I spoke Japanese, but because I eat raw eggs. Even the last remaining salaryman cracked a smile. “I’ve never seen a westerner eat multiple lunches and raw eggs. You’re like a Japanese person,” Tada said. “I’m a professional,” I smiled. Okada was a place your grandfather might take you to. Not fancy, not cool. It was designed for another era, another generation. But it was good, cheap and friendly. Like many of the pandemic casualties, it will be sorely missed.
Tada took me back to my guesthouse, Kanran Hygge dig i Setouchi (￥21,000/US$202 per night), a miniature minka nestled in an olive grove hillside overlooking the placid Seto Sea with the occasional plum tree exploding in pink blossom below. For my final night in Kagawa, I’d signed up for an udon cooking course with the lodge’s food attendant, Maya. We would make a humble Uchikomi udon, a dish traditionally eaten by the entire family during breaks between farm work. We made the dough, cut the udon into strings and then crammed it all into a pot with carrots, pumpkin, daikon, burdock root, abura age (fried tofu) and fatty cuts of pork. Udon aficionados may recognize its similarity to Yamanashi’s Houtou udon, but this has a much lighter broth made with dried sardines. Too light for me in fact.
Sometimes cooking a new dish from scratch is enlightening and satisfying; other times, the magic disappears. In the case of Uchikomo, it was the latter. No raw egg. No purring cat. No salarymen. But still, I could eat another.
udon-taxi.com/en/;￥4,800 (US$46) per hour for up to 4 people.