Udon, or o-udon to give it its Sunday name, is made from strong wheat flour that is mixed with salt and water, kneaded well, and stretched and sliced. Another arrival from China in the Nara period, it was long a staple before soba appeared. Rumor has it that udon was brought to Kagawa Prefecture on the island of Shikoku by the returning Buddhist saint, Kukai.
Today the white wheat noodles are found nationwide, in forms either fat, thin, round, or flat. One popular regional variation is Nagoya’s flat kishimen served in a miso broth. On Shikoku, Tokushima’s famed Sanuki udon is often sold at self-service restaurants and indeed has become all the rage nationwide, where the customer steams their own noodles and dips them in the tsuyu, along with ingredients of their own choosing.
Ise, in Mie Prefecture, is home to Ise Jingu, arguably the nation's most important Shinto shrine. A popular destination for tourists and pilgrims alike, the fare of choice here is Ise udon, really long white noodles served in a sauce made from niboshi dried fish, kelp, katsuo and tamari shoyu from the Mikawa district. Akita (Inaniwa udon), Yamagata (Hibari Udon), Iwate (Ranmen), Miyagi (Shiraishi U-men), Gunma (Kiryu Udon, Mizusawa Udon), Tochigi (Mimi Udon), Tokyo and Saitama (Musashino Udon), Yamanashi (Hoto), Nagano (Oshibori Udon), Gifu (Koro) and Nagasaki (Goto Udon) all claim that their wheat noodles are best. There's only one way to find out!
As with soba, udon wheat noodles are served either cold with tsuyu or hot in its own soup. One popular option, kama'age-udon combines both, where hot noodles are dipped into a cold dipping sauce. Other favorites are the cold, simple hiyashi udon; bukkake udon, with its cold tsuyu poured on the udon itself; nabeyaki udon, a hotpot-style mix of vegetables and shrimp served piping hot, especially in winter; and misonikomi udon, which is like nabeyaki but has a miso broth. Kare-udon (curry udon) is a perennial favorite, with the noodles served in a curry roux, often with beef which is termed gyu kare-udon. Check out the Kyoto specialist, Hinode Udon here.
Udonya is the name given to udon specialist stores, though often the dish served alongside soba in a sobaya soba shop, and is pretty much a given on any shokudo canteen menu.
Somen Thin White Wheat Noodles
A close relative of udon is the wonderful summer noodle, somen. Also made from wheat mixed with salt and water, it contains sesame or cottonseed oils (depending on the region), thus, despite its ‘lightweight’ refreshing image, it is quite high in calories. It is always hung to dry in sunlight, one of the Japanese winter’s most evocative late-afternoon sights.
Miwa village in Nara is the somen mecca, producing a very thin noodle called Miwa somen. There are similar regional variations in Kawachi, south Osaka and the island of Shodoshima in the Inland Sea. The thinnest noodles are called ito somen, while Tochigi Prefecture’s Nikko produces a big fat old version, Nikko somen. 40% of Japan's market is controlled by Hyogo Prefecture's Ibonoito somen makers union, who all adhere to the same traditional production methods and ingredients.
While udon dough rarely has other ingredients added to it, somen often has additions, including green tea in cha somen, egg yolk in kimi somen, shrimp in ebi somen and kuzu (where starch is extracted from the kudzu vine) in kuzu somen.
Without a doubt, the most fun way to eat somen is by trying to catch it with chopsticks as it flies down an open bamboo half-cylinder chute in a stream of iced water. This is called somen nagashi (literally, 'flushing somen'), and it's a tricky skill to master. Fortunately, any noodles you miss will be trapped in a sieve at the bottom of the culinary water slide, and returned for consumption asap.