April 7 – 9, 2015
Japanese are serious food lovers. Almost every region is synonymous with its local specialty; for ramen there are Sapporo and Fukuoka, Osaka has takoyaki and kushikatsu, and okonomiyaki in Hiroshima. But probably nobody loves their local dish quite like the marriage-like devotion people in Kagawa Prefecture have with Sanuki udon (Sanuki is the former name of Kagawa).
A quick search on Tabelog.com shows there an incredible 5,100 restaurants that sell udon in Kagawa. That’s one udon eatery per 195 people (For comparison 22,482 people share a single McDonald’s in the States). Many sell only udon and are opened for just a few hours a day or until stock runs out. One is always just around the corner – you can even find them in the middle of rice fields.
So what’s different about Sanuki udon from the ones commonly available elsewhere? Traditionally the noodle was made with a locally produced wheat flour, but nowadays most of the grain is imported from Australia. The noodle is square in shape, has flat edges, and is only cooked briefly in boiled water to retain its distinguished chewiness. The broth is made from dried sardine and is much lighter in color and salinity than outside of the prefecture. Most shops have a self-serve counter where the patrons can add scallion, ginger and tenkasu for free, or pay extra for various deep fried toppings or raw egg.
I was prepared to eat nothing but udon for three straight days – when in Takamatsu, do as the locals do, right? I love pasta; not a fan of most Chinese noodle except daoxiaomian; of the three main types of Japanese noodles I only care for ramen and udon but not soba. My point is – I have a high tolerance for noodle. My carb-cutting wife, though, sensibly would have none of it, so I would have to pick and choose my spots flexibly. A second breakfast? Great. Afternoon tea after a filling lunch? I was up to that too. Somehow I worked in three meals in total around Takamatsu on the recommendation of a friend and Tabelog.com.
Yamada-ya うどん本陣 山田家 本店
“All the udon shops taste the same.”
“Everyone goes to Yamada-ya.”
Bestowed with these two advises from my Osaka-based friend, we began our udon journey at Yamada-ya on a drizzly Tuesday afternoon. Humble and unfurnished are the traits of the typical udon joint, but Yamada-ya completely destroys this stereotype like how the Mountain smashed the Viper’s head into smithereens. The front gate of Yamada-ya looks like that of a prestigious kaiseki restaurant in Kyoto; it leads to a large Japanese garden that wouldn’t look out of place if it was teleported to a World Heritage temple like Kinkaku-ji.
Such extravagance means two things – this place is hugely profitable by selling a modest soul food, and this success probably mainly comes from tourist dollars.
Since it was late in the afternoon we didn’t have to wait to get a table. This was not a self-servicing kind of place; we were led through the automatic door to our table where two booklet awaited us. The menu had several categories – it began with two pages of seasonal specials, then followed by a wide range of udon, deep fried dishes, oden, pressed sushi and tofu. Unfazed by this onslaught of choices, we went with the basic and ordered the cold udon and a few sides.
The cold soba (¥570) came with a bottle of room temperature broth and the usual toppings like chopped scallions and tenkasu. It was not as chewy as I expected. It was alright – but there are better ones in Takamatsu.
Yamada-ya is located to the east of Yashima, which makes it a convenient noodle break after visiting the mountain. Otherwise it doesn’t warrant the commute.
Address: 3186 Mure, Murechō, Takamatsu, Kagawa Prefecture
Opening hours: 10:00 – 20:00
Seat: 260 (additional 30 at the garden if weather permits)
Udon Bakaichidai 手打十段 うどんバカ一代
Most highly regarded udon shops are located outside of Takamatsu, which isn’t surprising given the city’s relatively expensive rent and the low margin of profit for selling udon. Udon Bakaichidai is the highest ranked one that’s close to the city center. On foot it is a 15 min walk from Kawaramachi train station.
We arrived at 8:30 in the morning and the shop was filled with locals having breakfast. Imagine a polar opposite of Yamada-ya and you will get Udon Bakaichidai. Everything is self-service, kind of like a fast food joint that only sells udon. The ordering was quite straightforward except you could choose the quantity per bowl, from one to three servings. The local’s love for udon is really not an exaggeration – almost everyone went for the max serving. I could barely finish one.
Again my choice was cold udon (¥210 + ¥80 for commonly free toppings), and a deep fried pork chop. I always prefer cold udon because the coldness accentuates the noodle’s chewy texture. The noodle was thicker than Yamada-ya and the firmness was about the same. The pork chop was cold and tasteless. Given the price and location there was not much reason to nitpick.
Address: 1-6-7 Tagachō, Takamatsu, Kagawa
Opening hours: 6:00 – 18:00
Udon Ippuku うどん 一福
Not content with what I had so far, immediately following my breakfast at Udon Bakaichidai, I made a last-ditch attempt to satisfy my need of knowing I had at least one decent bowl of Sanuki udon at its place of origin. My choice was Udon Ippuku on Takamatsu’s west side. This is one of those highly regarded shop that only opens for a few hours each day over lunch and closes whenever stock runs out.
Already a long lineup of around 20 people had formed when we arrived at 10:30. This time I ordered the Tsukimi Udon (udon with raw egg; ¥330) for a change, along with some deep fried shrimps. One note on the shrimps first – it was oily, cold and tasteless. After suffering the same fate at both Bakaichidai and Ippuku, I recommend not ordering any deep fried food at udon shops unless it was just out of the deep fryer.
On the first bite it was immediately apparent Ippuku’s udon was in a different league to all others I encountered thus far. Even consumed hot it was much firmer than the cold udon at Yamada-ya and Bakaichidai. While there should be even better udon in Kagawa, I left Ippuku learning two things: Not everyone has to go to Yamada-ya, and more importantly, there are tangible differences between a passable bowl of udon and a good one.
Address: 169-1 Kokubunjichō Nii, Takamatsu, Kagawa
[Mon – Fri] 10:00 – 14:00
[Sat – Sun] 10:00 – 15:00 or out of stock