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Sanuki udon (Hanamaru. Inc)
Noodles are to the Japanese as hamburgers are to Americans. Although a variety of noodles are eaten in almost every region of Japan, the western half, including Kyoto, Osaka, and Kobe, is famous for the thicker wheat-flour noodles known as udon, while natives of the greater Tokyo region have traditionally preferred the thin buckwheat-flour noodles called soba. At least that's the way it was until about a year ago, when the capital region began to go wild over Sanuki udon.

A Long, Strange Trip
Sanuki udon is a traditional product of Kagawa Prefecture (known in ancient times as Sanuki), where it is consumed on such special occasions as New Year's Eve, memorial services, and moving day - and on many days in between. In fact, per capita udon consumption in Kagawa is seven times the national average.

Legend has it that Sanuki udon was first brought to the region from China in the ninth century by the famed monk Kukai. Although known and loved for years by some udon eaters in all parts of Japan, it was only last year that Sanuki udon really caught on in Tokyo and its environs. In 2003 the craze spread to Osaka, and today the product is enjoying a nationwide boom.

So, what's so special about Sanuki udon? Above all, it's the texture of the noodles, which have a soft and silky feel combined with an al dente firmness, and the way they are complemented perfectly by the lightly seasoned bonito-and-kelp–based soup in which they are served. The superior texture of the noodles, the result of a special recipe involving local ingredients and techniques, has never been successfully imitated elsewhere. With their love of fine food, residents of the capital region have taken enthusiastically to what many consider the ultimate udon, despite the traditional Tokyo preference for soups more heavily seasoned with soy sauce. Perhaps they have found that Sanuki udon offers a refreshing change for jaded palates.

Customers wait in line at Hanamaru. (Hanamaru. Inc)

The Book That Launched the Boom
If any one person deserves credit for this phenomenon, it is 46-year-old Tao Kazutoshi, a resident of Takamatsu and professor of Shikoku Gakuin University, who two years ago published a guide to udon shops in Kagawa Prefecture titled Osorubeki Sanuki Udon (Magic of Sanuki Udon). His book reflects the results of months of research taste-testing the fare in various Kagawa noodle shops, of which there are some 800.

A mouth-watering piece of reportage, on its publication the book drew thousands of tourists to Kagawa from all over the country. Soon, travel agencies were offering "Sanuki udon tours," and the boom was on its way. "The whole prefecture is like an udon theme park," marvels Tao. "I figured people in the Tokyo region would view it as a novelty, but I never imagined it would take off like this."

It wasn't long before some enterprising souls realized that if Tokyoites were willing to travel to Shikoku for a bowl of noodles, Sanuki udon had an excellent chance of gaining a foothold outside of Kagawa as well. In September last year the major Sanuki udon chain Hanamaru, based in Takamatsu, opened its first shop in the metropolitan region, in the Shibuya district of Tokyo, and a number of other Kagawa noodle chains have since followed suit. Other industries - including travel agencies, booksellers, and clothing brands - are looking to capitalize on the boom as well.

New Export?
A year after opening its first restaurant in Tokyo, the Hanamaru chain boasts 100 noodle shops nationwide. Now the company has its sites set on New York, confident that udon is poised to take its place alongside tempura and sushi as international cuisine. After all, like the residents of Tokyo and Osaka, New Yorkers appreciate a good, fast, cheap meal.

At a Hanamaru noodle shop, ¥100 ($0.90 at ¥110 to the dollar) buys a small serving of noodles and soup, while ¥200 ($1.80) buys a medium serving and ¥300 ($2.70) a large one. Customers are free to select their own toppings (costing ¥100-¥200 each), and this allows them to customize their noodles at a bargain price. This is fast food minus the grease, and the executives at Hanamaru are betting busy, health-conscious New Yorkers will go for Sanuki udon in a big way.

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Related Web Sites
The Story of soba and udon in Kids Web Japan
"Buddism" in Japan Access
Hanamaru (Japanese only)

Copyright (c) 2004 Web Japan. Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.

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