How Udon Noodles Became a Japanese Favorite

The history of Sanuki udon in Kagawa prefecture, from the legend of their origin to faucets that pour broth

Sanuki-no-yume02Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Kagawa Prefecture is in the North East of Shikoku Island. Kagawa is abundant with nature, as the northern border meets the Seto Inland Sea and the Sanuki Mountains rise along the southern border. It is the smallest prefecture in Japan and covers only 0.5% of the area of Japan but there are many beautiful destinations and the climate is warm.

Visitors will not be disappointed by the small islands that dot the gorgeous Seto Inland Sea (Naoshima, famous for exhibiting world class modern art around the island; and Shodoshima, an island that played a vital role in the shipping industry), and Kuribayashi Park, a historical garden designed for a feudal lord.

Bukkake-Udon (Udon Noodles in a soup with Various Ingredients and Condiments) (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Another important symbol of Kagawa Prefecture is Sanuki udon. Udon noodles are considered fast food and found all over Japan, but the consumption rate of udon per household in Kagawa is three times more than the national average. Proclaiming themselves as the Udon Prefecture, udon culture is treasured by the people and you can find faucets that pour broth. Sanuki udon’s presence in Kagawa can’t be compared, so let’s take a look back at its history.

Manno-ike Pond (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

What are the origins of Sanuki udon? 

The origins of Sanuki udon can be traced back to 1,200 years ago. Legend says Kukai, a monk from Kagawa, who went to China as a research scholar transported udon back to Japan. Kukai, also known as Kobo-daishi, was the founder of the Shingon School of Buddhism. Kukai is the most well-known monk from the Heian period (794-1185). Known for his appetite for knowledge and multiple talents, Kukai was dispatched to Xian, China to study and bring back the latest knowledge and technology in Buddhism, architecture, and engineering, He also brought back udon noodles enjoyed by the local people in China. Kukai was a good calligrapher and talented civil engineer. He constructed the Manno pond, the largest pond in Japan, and contributed to agricultural irrigation projects.

Kukai-zo (Statue of Kukai) (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Mannouike reservoirMinistry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Noodles for farmers

Manno pond is located in South West Kagawa in Manno town in Nakatado district. The pond is the largest irrigation reservoir in Japan. For centuries, the reservoir has provided water to the entire Marugame plains region which has very little rain and barely any rivers. Throughout history, the reservoir broke frequently because of floods and many people suffered. It is said that Kukai was able to reconstruct the reservoir in just three months. About 1,200 years ago, he designed the modern arch type dam to reconstruct the reservoir. The farmers who worked on that reconstruction were fed noodles made from wheat.

Takinomiyatenmangu (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Takinomiyatenmangu "Ryutoin Ato (Relic Site)" (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Where the first udon was made

Takinomiya Tenmangu is a shrine in Ayagawa town in Ayauta district. Takinomiya shrine is associated as the birthplace of udon, a stone relic in the shrine called the Ryutoin-ato marks where the first udon was made. What Kukai learned about making udon in China, he taught his nephew Chisen, and it is said the family ate udon at this spot. Back then udon were not noodles, they were pieces of flattened round dough.

Udon restaurant (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

The history of udon shops

Among the many legends about the birth of udon, the oldest record associated to the Sanuki udon is the Kompira Sairei Zu-byobu, a painting depicting a major festival in Kotohira shrine. It was painted 300 years ago by Iwasa Kiyonobu, a painter during the Genroku era (1688-1704). In the painting we see details of people visiting the festival and merchants running their stalls, three of these stalls are udon shops. The details show people kneading flour, rolling the dough, and cutting the noodles, the same process we see today. It is a valuable record of the people who made a living running udon shops.

Udon restaurant (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Visit the Kotohira shrine

During the Edo period (1603-1869) making a visit to the Kotohira shrine, a place associated with spirituality from long ago, became a tradition around Japan. The visit is known as Kompira-mairi. During the Edo period, common people were banned from travelling. However visits to the Kotohira shrine and the Ise shrine were considered special cases. Visiting the Kotohira shrine became a popular attraction and many people wished to pay respect at the shrine at least once during their lifetime. Visitors to the Kotohira shrine came from all over Japan and they ate Sanuki udon at the gates. As soon as the visitors went home, the word spread about these delicious noodles.

A Stick for Konpira-Mairi (Visiting Kotohira-gu Shrine) (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Visiting the Kotohira shrine and doing a Kompira-mairi is still popular today. To get to the main hall, visitors climb up 785 stone steps from the shrine entrance. Many of the udon shops along the road leading to the shrine entrance rent out walking sticks for free to visitors.

Udon restaurant (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Udon restaurant (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Making Udon Noodles, How to Boil (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Udon Noodles, Moritsuke (Dishing up) (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Find your favorite udon

Today there are many udon shops at the foot of Kotohira shrine. Some shops are hundreds of years old dating back to the Edo period and some shops only opened within the past ten to twenty years. One udon shop that stands out is a 400-year-old establishement that is in a preserved traditional Japanese inn. Each shop has its own unique style of serving the noodles and broth. Trying udon at the different shops until you find your favorite is a fun way to explore.

Udon restaurant, Interior Space (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Udon at the theater

Kanamaruza Theater is located near Kotohira town. In the spring, the theater presents a large scale kabuki production and you can see many kabuki actors visiting the area. The older udon shops are lined with posters of kabuki stars.

Sanuki-no-yume02Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

An environment fit for producing wheat

The environment of Kagawa prefecture is fit for producing wheat, another reason why udon became a staple here. Most of Japan has a lot of rain fall and is humid, so the climate is not fit for producing wheat. However, in Kagawa the climate is mild and dry and has quality soil, which led to an increase in wheat production. During the Muromachi period (1336-1573), farmers began multiple crops, and grew rice and wheat together. This was a technique developed by the early farmers to use the small fields efficiently. Many farms continue to have multiple crops today.

Ishimaru Seimen Factory, Types of Wheat Flour (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Tried and tested

Production of wheat was active until 1963, when the rise of imported wheat caused production to decline sharply. During the decline, a group of local people stood up and called for the revitalization of real Sanuki udon made from local wheat and their voices spurred the redevelopment of local wheat in 1991. The udon industry of Kagawa cooperated in the development process and produced an udon with improved color and texture that couldn’t be achieved before, this new udon was named Sanuki-no-Yume 2000. Since then the udon has been tested and tried, and has developed into the Sanuki-no-Yume 2009. The udon tradition was kept alive and continues to be passed on because people are passionate about their culture.

Udon-Uchi (Udon Noodle Making) (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Preparing udon

Olives have been produced in Kagawa prefecture for more than 100 years. The olives are handpicked and grown with the utmost care. Olives contain many antioxidants such as oleic acid that is said to prevent lifestyle diseases and improve health, while polyphenol that is said to be useful in preventing cancer. The residue from the pressed olives are dried through a heating process and fed to cattle. These premium cattle raised on olives are branded as “Kuroge Wagyu ga Olivegyu”. The newest wave in Sanuki udon is udon, served with a topping of the exquisite olive-fed wagyu.

Sanuki Udon Gifted Education Kit (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

A family activity

This rich food culture that has been passed on for generations is also playing a role in nurturing children’s emotional learning. The Sanuki Udon Early Education Kit was developed so families could make udon at home with their children. The kit is made for young children to enjoy the different aspects of making udon, starting with extracting dashi.

Kamaage-Uon (Udon Noodles Straight from the Pot and Not Soaked in Cold Water) (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

The Sanuki udon’s appeal is never ending as you get to know more about it. It is easy to see why its popularity has not waned over the years. Times and generations may change but the appetite and love for udon will be passed on.

Credits: Story

Cooperation with:
Manno Lake
Takinomiya tenmangu
Nakano Udon School
Konpira Udon
Toraya Udon

Photos:Misa Nakagaki
Text & Edit :Saori Hayashida
Production:Skyrocket Corporation

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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