My brother and I watched a movie called Udon 10 years ago which was set in the Kagawa Prefecture (or Sanuki as it used to be called) on the island of Shikoku. While the storyline might have been a bit weak, I was mesmerized by bowl after bowl of steaming hot noodles the characters slurped up. The udon pilgrimage craze to Sanuki from the movie sparked an interest in my brother to do the same and is something he’s talked about for many years now. When we were planning our family trip to Japan this year, a trip to Kagawa for udon was on the top of my brother’s list of things he wanted to do.
In the movie, it was said that there are around 1 million residents in the Kagawa prefecture and over 900 udon restaurants. If you put that into perspective, New York City, with its 8.5 million population has 250 MacDonalds restaurants. It’s an area that is deeply passionate about their udon and I wanted to experience it first hand.
At it’s finest, Sanuki udon is a hand(and foot)-made process where the dough is allowed to rise before being padded down by foot in a process repeated several times. The dough is then rolled out and cut by hand. The noodles are then boiled and most of the time shocked with cold water (most of the time) and then reheated just before serving. Udon noodles are dense and toothsome but not heavy. Unlike ramen, udon is served simply, so the quality of the noodle is important.
Udon takes a back seat to ramen and soba in most of the world, but it’s at the top of my noodle list. Udon is my comfort food, which I know is closely related to the relationship I have with the food I grew up with. It was and still is my mom’s go to if I’m sick, cold or need a quick snack. Just the image of my mom placing a small bowl of udon with a clear broth and a sprinkle of green onions in front of me is enough to put a smile on my face.
I’m sure my brother’s love for udon comes from these same feelings as well and it was his request that solidified for our udon pilgrimage to Sanuki. When he proposed our whirlwind adventure, I wasn’t sure how much udon I’d be able to eat but was up for the challenge. With my father’s assistance (and great research skills), we took an early train and headed towards the Kagawa prefecture on Shikoku Island.
After a 2.5 hour Shinkansen ride from Osaka we arrived in Takamatsu, the largest city in Kagawa and our home base.
Armed with my dad’s suggested itinerary with additional suggestions just in case we veered off track, we were udon ready.
Stop 1: Takamatsu train station – Kitsune udon
I was surprised when my dad adamantly suggested the train station as the first stop on our udon adventure but trusted he wouldn’t steer us wrong. Knowing that stop 2 would take us an hour outside the city and that we’d have to wait in a line, getting something in our stomachs seemed like an excellent idea.
Stop 2: Yamagoe Udon – Kamatama Yama Udon
Located in Ayagawa, a 50 minute train ride (plus a 10 minute cab ride) away from Takamatsu. As the train left Takamatsu, I felt like we were riding further and further into the country, which I loved.
When we got off the train at Ayagawa in the middle of nowhere, we grabbed the one and only taxi and made our way for Yamagoe udon (aka Yamakoshi udon).
The cab ride was only 10 minutes and it felt like we were taken further into the country. After being in the crowded cities of Tokyo and Kyoto the past few days, it was nice to get away from the masses. Well… that was until we rounded the corner to the restaurant to find a huge line up of people waiting to get a taste of Yamagoe udon.
As we entered the queue, we were told that the wait would be around 30 minutes, which I couldn’t believe considering the line was blocks long. We were also handed a menu which neither my brother or I could read because it was all in Japanese. I google translated to no avail and started to get a bit stressed out. As we got closer to the front of the line, we were happy to see samples of the different options and we were able to make our decision and match it to what was on the menu.
Unfortunately, when we rounded the corner inside the door to the restaurant, we were asked immediately for our order by the woman at the cashier located at least 10 people in front of us. Not having any clue what we wanted other than from the menu, and being too far from the cashier to be able to point, we panicked a bit, but luckily the people in front of us were able to help us order.
We quickly got our udon and then went to a station to add broth to our noodles. We just followed the people ahead of us and poured broth onto our noodles, only to be told we were using the broth for cold noodles rather than pouring from a tap that had warm broth. Luckily, everyone was patient with my brother and I because they knew we were “foreigners”.
We were going to walk back to the train station after Yamagoe, but one of the staff showed us to a bus that was waiting to bring passengers back to the train station. We were thankful, as it saved us a 45-minute walk in the warm sun. We were dropped off at a different station than the one we’d arrived at, this one even quainter and reminded me how far into the country we’d travelled for this bowl of udon.
We made our way back to Takamatsu and after we dropped our bags off the hotel, we decided we had room in our stomach for one more bowl of udon that afternoon.
From my dad’s list, we picked Matsushita Seimensho, which is also an udon noodle factory, that was located between our hotel and Ritsurin Park. While their hours said they were open until 3pm, when we arrived it was closed (they close when they run out of noodles). Thankful again for my dad’s amazing advance research, we were quickly able to find another option to continue our quest.
Stop 3 Baka Ichidai Butter Tama udon
Baka Ichidai’s most popular udon is the kama butter udon. It’s basically hot udon served with a pat of butter and a good amount of pepper shaken overtop with a raw egg served on the side.
You take the egg and crack it into the bowl of steaming udon and mix it all up. Once everything is combined, you add a bit of dashi and top with green onions and tenkasu (the crunchy bits of leftover fried tempura batter).
After all that udon, it was time to walk it off with a stroll through one of my favorite parks in Japan. Ritsurin Koen (park) is one of the 3 most beautiful gardens in Japan and while we visitied a few days early to catch it in full bloom, I still loved the lush green space and the serenity of a garden away from the tourist masses.
Stop 4 Teuchi Udon Tsurumaru – Late night Curry udon
My original research for this udon adventure showed me that udon was a morning/afternoon food, so I thought that we’d have a reprieve for dinner. Of course, my dad was able to find a place where we’d be able to continue slurping up the noodles into the evening. This time, at a late night only noodle shop that specialized in curry udon.
I was happy to see their vat of boiling oden where I picked a few pieces just for some variety away from udon.
Stop 5 Matsushita Seimensho – Kake udon
After striking out at Matsushita the day before, we woke up early to try again. Matsushita is primarily a udon factory, with a dining area added to the front of its warehouse as an afterthought.
More than any other place we visited, this felt like a true local’s shop. People breezed in and out on their way to work, quickly slurping up their noodles. And while we were there less than 15 minutes, it still felt like we were lingering.
Stop 6 – Mentokoro Wataya – Special Bukkake
While my brother could have kept going on this udon adventure, I hit my limit so we decided to start making our way back towards Osaka where our parents were. We got on the train in Takamatsu and decided on one last stop in Marugame.
Mentokoro Wataya was a walkable 15 minutes from the Marugame train station. We walked at a brisk pace as we knew it was a popular local worker’s spot and wanted to get there before the lunch rush.
6 bowls of udon in just over 25 hours was my noodle limit! While this pilgrimage wouldn’t be for everyone, I’m very happy my brother pushed to do it. The past few trips to Japan, I’ve been disheartened that many of the places I’ve loved to visit in the past have become overrun with tourists and English is understood with ease. I’ve missed the unique opportunities that I’ve had in Japan, where I can walk quietly, get lost in places or find myself in situations that most normal tourists can’t because I have working basic knowledge of spoken Japanese. That is the Japan that I long for with my visits and Kagawa provided me with opportunities where I was challenged as a traveller while experiencing something different than the most other tourists. Feeling totally satisfied, I boarded the train back towards Osaka ready to take on the masses again.