Udon Pilgrimage, Kagawa Prefecture

Udon with egg, green scallion and beef korokke.
Sanuki Udon at Yamagoe Udon

May 4 – 6, 2005

Photo set on Flickr

Takamatsu?

The very last fickle of light has disappeared from the horizon. What’s left is an encompassing darkness that has engulfed everything under the sky.

I am on a self-imposed mission to walk back to Takamatsu. I am hobbling. I am alone. I am penniless. I look behind me for the first time in hours and all I can see is a dimly lit country road curving between empty rice paddies and the occasional farmhouses.

“How did I get myself into THIS?”

The day started rather typically. I woke up in a town called Takamatsu on Shikoku, the smallest of the four main islands of Japan. Nondescript in most aspects, Takamatsu, the largest city in the Kagawa Prefecture, is distinctive for a singular reason – its inextinguishable passion for the local Sanuki udon (Kagawa was formerly known as Sanuki Province). Just like there is a burger joint on every other corner in any North American city, Takamatsu has more than 300 eateries specialize in udon.

I am actually not a huge fan of udon, and Takamatsu is a long way from Nagoya, where I was staying for a week. But with three available days before flying back to Vancouver, I gave myself two criteria; no crowd and no sightseeing. I somehow convinced myself that doing nothing but eating udon for three straight days was going to be a memorable experience, so that’s how I ended up in Takamatsu in the late afternoon of May 4.

What I didn’t anticipate was unlike large cities like Nagoya, nearly everything closed down in Takamatsu during the Golden Week (April 29 – May 5). My udon pilgrimage was halted before it even began; my first meal was at a MOS Burger next to the JR station.

Since today is May 5 and the last day of the Golden Week, I was forced to break my rule and do some sightseeing. First thing on my agenda was to exchange some money; I only had about 1,500¥ left. I headed to the JR station hoping to find a currency exchange shop but nothing was opened. Undeterred, I figured I would come across another one along the way. I bypassed lunch hoping to make my money last a bit further.

There was nothing to see in the city itself, so I ventured to Ritsurin Garden located on the town’s outskirt. It is a beautiful Japanese garden, much more so than the more acclaimed Kenroku-en Garden in Kanazawa, which I found to be slightly disappointing when I was there a week ago.

I took the Kotoden Kotohira Line to my next stop, the small town of Kotohira and home of the Shinto shrine Konpira-san, about 30 km south of Takamatsu. My heart sank when I couldn’t find any currency exchange or even a single ATM in the whole town. Still, I steadfastly believed there would be a solution eventually.

Konpira-san is located at the halfway point of Mount Zozu and whoever wishing to visit must climb 785 steps. I wasn’t expecting much, but Konpira-san and the nearby Kanamaru-za, the oldest surviving Kabuki playhouse in Japan, was well worth the time and effort.

The time was already 4:30 pm. Sensory stimulation could delay my basic need for food and water only so long. I hadn’t eaten at all the entire day and had only drunk a cup of water right after waking up. But my financial situation was even more dire; there was exactly one single 100¥ coin left in my pocket.

At the train station I tried to pay for my fare with Canadian dollars, but the station manager declined to accept any foreign currency. I was at a crossroad; either I searched around town until I could find someone who would exchange money, which probably was just a matter of time, or I could follow the rail track and walk the 30 km back to Takamatsu, which under any circumstances would be an unequivocally retarded choice.

Turned out I didn’t get my brain involved in the decision making process; an adrenaline rush provided me with a kick and my eyes soon could only see the track ahead.

The Long Walk

So here I am, three hours since leaving the train station, trudging north along the narrow two-lane National Route 32. I haven’t eaten anything the entire day. Worse, the skin on both my heels have ben rubbed off by my ill-fitting shoes bought just a few days ago in Nagoya. I have given up on hitchhiking – for the past hour I have stuck my thumb up to no avail.

The sight of two unlocked bikes in front of a farmhouse is extremely tempting. The possibility of any repercussion will be minimal as I have yet to see a single pedestrian thus far along the way, but my conscience won’t have any of it. I put all my focus again on the path in front; not feeling self-pity is the least I can do for myself.

My brain shifts into conservation mode as my energy level steadily declines. After passing by long stretches of farmland and the occasional small village, the sudden appearance of illuminated objects like vending machines or pachinko parlors give me some short-lived goals to chase after.

With a slight limp, I reach the outskirt of Takamatsu at around 11:30 pm. I have still yet to bump into a non-driving person since leaving the train station more than six hours ago. It gives me a slight chill to walk among all these indispensable infrastructure of the modern civilization like elevated highways and commercial buildings without seeing another person in any direction. Finally I see a couple walking from a family restaurant similar to Denny’s. The prospect of food doesn’t entice me anymore; I just walk to take a shower and lay down on a bed. As I get closer to the town centre, the street becomes more populated with people. The end is almost there.

So how about the udon?

Some sharp noise wakes me up from my dream. It is the phone. I scrabble around before finally picking up the phone and the female voice on the other side begins monotonously speaking in Japanese. After I make myself clear that I don’t speak Japanese, she hesitantly continues in broken English, “Umm… sir… it is… eleven o’clock now. The check out time… is now.”

I tell her I will come down soon and then fall back to sleep. Ten minutes later my anticipation of the phone ringing once more snaps me out of my torpid state for good. Putting on a pair of socks over the wounds on my heels jolts me wide awake. Yesterday is not a dream – I really did walk for eight hours from Kotohira to Takamatsu.

At the nearby bank I make sure I have exchanged enough cash this time. I have to say, I don’t usually carry much cash back at home because of the convenience of using cards, but only now do I realize how reassuring it feels to have hard currency in my hands.

After reaching the pinnacle of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs yesterday, I prefer spending today satisfying basic necessities like feeding myself, which, thinking back, is my purpose of being in Takamatsu in the first place.

Celebrating my renewed purchasing power I choose as my first stop Udon Ichidai (うどん一代; Address: 香川県高松市西の丸町 12-3), a 3-minute walk from Takamatsu JR Station. Even in my deprived state I find my bowl of plain udon utterly ordinary.

Unsatisfied and slightly disappointed, I search for my next target under the “Legendary Udon” section of my Kagawa travel magazine. I am particularly tempted by a photo of Tsukimiyama Udon (月見山) at Yamagoe Udon (山越うどん; Address: 綾歌郡綾川町羽床上 602-2), a bowl of freshly cooked udon stirred with raw egg and cooked yam.

Yamagoe Udon is located in the small town Ayagawa, about halfway between Takamatsu and Kotohira. I board the Kotoden Kotohira Line once again, only this time I have enough reserve for the return fare as well. I get off at Takinomiya Station. The instruction to Yamagoe is either a 40 minute walk or a 10 minute drive and there is no way in hell I am choosing the former, which means I have to splurge on a taxi ride.

Traveling for more than an hour to the countryside just for a bowl of udon might seem a tad excessive, but a legion of similarly minded udon-cravers is already queuing up outside the warehouse-like shop. Inside, the staff has formed an assembly line to tackle the high volume of demand; the first lady is responsible for taking order, the lady behind her collects money, then those working in the open kitchen methodically attend to their respective stations before the final products are placed on a large wooden table waiting to be collected by the eager customers. I order the Tsukimiyama Udon and a piece of a beef korokke (Japanese croquette) as side.

The shop has no tables. Customers can either stay indoor and finish the noodle standing or sit on a bench in the garden. Not matter where I turn someone is busy slurping udon. I find a spot outside, stir the egg and yam into a mixture, and slip a long strip of noodle into my mouth. Chewy with a slight taste of wheat, this bowl of udon might look just like any other. Yet, in a subtle way, it stands above all the others I have ever had. Perhaps because I can now, at Sanuki Udon’s birthplace, relate more to this simple and earthy dish. Sentiment aside, the noodle is good enough for me to buy some packaged ones as souvenir.

Since there is no public transport around, I ask a staff to call a taxi for me. She tells me her colleague is going to deliver something and can give me a ride back to the train station. A middle aged guy appears and leads me to a white pickup truck at the back of the shop. We don’t speak each other’s languages but still manage to make some small talk by hand gestures and single words. The distance seems much shorter on this return leg without the presence of a taximeter.

A break from udon is definitely needed. Besides Sanuki Udon, Shikoku is home to one of the world’s most reverent pilgrimage route – the 88 Temple Pilgrimage. With nothing better to do, I once again break my pledge to not do any sightseeing and change to the Kotoden Shido Line in Takamatsu to Kotodenyashima, where the closest of the 88 temples, Yashima-ji, sits atop a mountain that shares the same name.

Pilgrims usually travel alone on foot or by tour buses in groups. Since I am not a Buddhist, I elect for the most unauthenticated way and hail a taxi again. Much of the mountain is covered in an impenetrable layer of fog. The serenity of being surrounded by the all-encompassing fog, even when obscuring the temple, is undoubtedly a more interesting experience than being at the same place under a clear sky.

Back in Takamatsu. It is time for some more udon. My choices are Sanukiya (讃岐家; Closed), famous for its udon with nameko mushroom and sprouts, and Tsurumaru Udon (鶴丸; Address: 香川県高松市古馬場町 9-34, a local favourite that opens till 3 am. I am understandably having too much udon for a single day and it has become eating for its own sake at this point.

But being incredibly full does have an advantage – I almost immediately fall asleep on the overnight bus back to Nagoya where my return flight to Vancouver awaits me.

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