To make udon, you need only three ingredients: wheat flour, salt and water.
But to make good udon – sanuki udon – it helps if you have kitschy yet catchy music blasting in the kitchen.
Think Village People’s campy YMCA, Pikotaro’s fruity Pen-Pineapple-Apple-Pen or Odoru Ponpokorin, the earworm theme song from anime series Chibi Maruko-chan.
You are likely to hear these songs when you go for a lesson on noodle-making at Nakano Udon School in Kotohira, a small town in Japan’s Shikoku island. Just as likely, you will be handed tambourines or maracas. This is for something the school calls “the tread”.
A lump of noodle dough is placed in a thick plastic bag. Despite years of your mother telling you not to play with your food, you’re required to step on the bag.
A CD starts playing. Egged on by the instructor (and supposedly lifted by the music), you massage the dough with your feet. The recipe describes it as “stomping and turning around with the heels of your feet”, but if you are rhythmically challenged and out of shape, it will be more like a weary, sheepish shuffle.
I was at the school last December with two other Malaysian journalists and our guide, Miko Sakamoto. We had to do the tread in relays because it was sweaty work, even in winter.
If you overlook the incongruousness of using percussion instruments and cheesy music to teach traditional cuisine, you will see that the school is serious about sanuki udon, a specialty of Shikoku’s Kagawa Prefecture.
The recipe and method for these noodles demand precision. When making the dough, the ratio of water to salt varies according to the season. The resting period for the dough also depends on the time of the year.
The dough has to be kneaded until it is “as hard as an earlobe”. Apparently, our earlobes all feel the same to the touch.
We went through almost the entire process at the school. We mixed the flour and salt water, and then we kneaded, trod, rolled and cut the dough. All that was left to do was to boil the noodles right at the dining table and eat them.
Sanuki udon is said to have a “firm, pleasantly chewy texture” and is “full-bodied yet soft”. These are fair descriptions. Besides, after labouring for your meal, you will have no problems enjoying them.
If you are ever in Kotohira, signing up for a class at Nakano Udon School is a memorable way to spend two hours or so.
Up the mountain for sea blessings
There are other worthwhile reasons to be there as we found out in our four days of travel through Shikoku – the smallest of Japan’s four main islands – and the Chugoku region in western Honshu.
Hosted by the Japan National Tourism Organisation (JNTO), our trip was a quick introduction to these two places that are undeservedly overshadowed by the likes of Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, Hokkaido and Okinawa.
It was a busy itinerary that provided a sampling of culture, nature, history and food. And the JNTO presumably wanted us to get a feel of the breadth and reliability of public transport in Japan, because several times, Miko briskly led us on train, tram and bus rides. And yes, they were clean, comfortable, and of course, on time.
But back to Kotohira. One of Shikoku’s more celebrated tourism features is a pilgrimage trail over 1,000km long that incorporates 88 Buddhist temples, most of which are along or near the island’s coastline. Kotohira is not on that route but it does have a place of worship with an appeal of its own.
The Kotohira-gu shrine is halfway up a mountain and you climb almost 800 stone steps to reach the main building. Such effort rewards you with spectacular views and space for peace and reflection as you admire the Shinto shrine and its surroundings.
Kotohira-gu is dedicated to a kami (spirit) called Konpira. There are different ways to define the nature of Konpira – “protector god of sailors”, “spiritual guardian of seafarers” or “guardian deity for navigation and fishing”. Let’s just say that to the believers, Konpira matters in all things nautical, and Kotohira-gu is considered the headquarters of all Konpira shrines.
Hence, shipbuilders are among the donors to the shrine, as are merchants who sell dried seafood. A sailor who crossed the Pacific solo in a solar-powered boat made primarily of recycled aluminium cans, gave the vessel to the shrine for display.
Here is another incentive for visiting the shrine: Nakano Udon School is at the foot of the mountain.
Getting in hot water
Our one night in Kotohira was spent at Kotohira Onsen Kotosankaku, a hybrid of a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) and a modern hotel. As the onsen in the name suggests, it has a natural hot spring bath. You get to stroll around in a yukata (a light cotton kimono) like the other guests do.
That was how we were dressed when we showed up for dinner, an equally traditional multi-course affair called kaiseki. There was no chance for an eat-and-run encounter here. The meal in the tatami room unfolded at ritual pace, giving us time to notice how visually pleasing the dishes were.
If you can handle being naked among strangers, you ought to take a dip at the in-house onsen. After all, visits to bath houses are very much part of life in Japan.
We got a firmer sense of that when we were in Matsuyama, Shikoku’s largest city. Many people believe that the Dogo Onsen there is one of Japan’s oldest hot spring baths, if not the oldest. Certainly the building has character and uniqueness, and is a focal point in that part of the city. It is also famous as one of the references for Spirited Away, Hayao Miyazaki’s highly-praised animated feature.
Miko told us that the typical Matsuyama retirement plan is to go for a morning soak at an onsen as often as possible.
Towering over the city, Matsuyama Castle is touted as a fine example of Japanese castle architecture. Not many castles in the country have remained intact for as many years as it has.
Spare some time to read the interpretive signage at the site to get a better idea of the castle’s rich design and history. And because of the 200 cherry blossom trees on the grounds, there is the promise of springtime splendour if you visit in March or April.
A fine vine experience
Shikoku has plenty of rustic attractions as well, and the choice made for our group was the Iya Valley in the mountainous heart of the island. On the drive there, we went through many tunnels along winding roads. But it was a pleasant ride accompanied with soothing scenery of green-and-brown slopes, deep gorges and tranquil villages. It got better midway when it started snowing gently, adding an ethereal quality to the landscape.
We took a 30-minute boat cruise along a stretch of the Yoshino River to get a closer look at the Oboke Gorge. The recorded commentary focused on geology but perhaps it was not the best weather and occasion to appreciate rocks. However, the scenery changes with the seasons, and on a warmer day, the cruise is bound to have more charm.
Miko made sure we had a proper Iya Valley lunch. That meant having buckwheat porridge, the local version of soba noodles, dekomashi (the so-called puppet barbecue, which is skewered and grilled potato, tofu and konnyaku), and grilled freshwater fish, meant to be eaten head and all.
On hindsight, having a full belly might not have been the best way to take on one of the valley’s highlights – the Iya-no-Kazurabashi or vine bridge over the Iya River. Anchored to two trees at both ends, it is 45m long and suspended 14m above the river. It used to be supported mainly by vines but is now reinforced with concealed steel cables.
Crossing the bridge can be intimidating because there are many big gaps and the bridge sways easily. But it was a thrill nevertheless to do it.
At the bridgehead where you start the quivering walk across – traffic is only allowed in one direction – there is a large signboard. If you take a few minutes to read it, the barrage of information may help take the edge off your nerves.
You will learn, for example, that the bridge has at least two possible origin stories. One tale reveals a connection between the bridge and the Shikoku pilgrimage trail. Legend has it that the 8th century Buddhist monk said to be the first who travelled the island to visit or establish temples, was instrumental in the construction of the bridge so that villagers in the valley had better access to the outside world.
The other story has it that the losers of a 12th century battle between clans escaped to the valley. They built vine bridges because if pursued by enemies, they could ensure safety by crossing a bridge and cutting it behind them.
According to Miko, the vines are replaced every few years and that the bridge was due for rejuvenation less than a month later. Soon after, we saw a truck passing by laden with vines.
It dawned on us that we had just crossed a bridge that needed to be freshened up. But it was a non-issue, really. If one must take a leap of faith, Iya Valley is a pretty place to do so.