Day 11: a close one


This was a close call. On this day, only 11 days into this strangers and noodles project, I didn’t talk to any strangers. I almost didn’t eat any noodles. I almost failed at this blog. (yikes!)

What I’ve realised about travelling around in a rental car, with someone else: it’s really easy to get into a happy little observe-y bubble where you look a lot but don’t talk to anyone else except each other, and the odd waiter or cashier. It’s hard to strike up a conversation with someone who looks interesting when you’re not-quite-whizzing by them at 40km/hr (some of those speed limits in Okinawa, man…). And when you’re in a kind of touristy place most people tend to stick together in their own little bubbles, too.

On this day it was raining in the far north of Okinawa, the weather had changed, a bit stormy for swimming, so we drove around all day in our rental car bubble, to the wild northern tip of the island and back to the semi-metropolis of parking-lotted and pachinko-parloured Nago. And because the place we were staying (more on that later) came with two extravagantly-portioned, incredibly delicious meals a day, I really could not find it in me to stop for lunch. (Neither could mum, don’t worry, I wasn’t forcibly trying to starve her.)

But what I did feel like was pineapple, even if it meant going to a highly kitschy pineapple theme park (once your eyes get used to all the yellow and green, it’s kind of okay – the tackiness is definitely part of the attraction) for their all-you-can-eat pineapple. So we did that. And ate our fill. And didn’t talk to anyone, really (the other visitors were mostly tour-busloads that got whisked along, anyway).

But at the very end of the pineapple park there were a few stands selling local produce – the usual mozuku and sea grapes and the like – and one of the guys there was offering samples of mozuku udon. Phew. No longer failing at the blog.

I didn’t really pay attention to the taste, or texture, or anything like that. What I do recall is that it was hot, savoury relief after eating two platefuls of fresh pineapple and sampling every possible kind of pineapple-related food and beverage product a human could think of. Thank you, quiet udon seller. I’m sorry I didn’t buy any of your wares to take home.


Day 5: Udon at Taniya


Last night I was physically and mentally exhausted from five days’ worth of slapping my feet against the pavements in Tokyo and although there are still about a thousand ramen shops on my list they were all kind of far away, I was getting that tight-throated feeling that’s so often a precursor to a cold, and I just wanted udon.

Udon, udon. I don’t know why it doesn’t get me worked up in the way ramen does. Maybe it’s because it seems pretty standard, straightforward, plain. You pretty much know what you’re going to get, whereas ramen is full of variations, full of surprises. But there’s something about udon that’s pure comfort that you don’t get with loud, brash, in-your-face flavour-packed ramen. Udon is quiet, but self-assured, subtle yet sturdy. So last night I didn’t feel like ramen at all. Udon was the answer.

I went to this udon shop called Taniya in the Ningyocho neighbourhood just a couple subway stops from the place where I’m staying. It’s run by this guy (Tani) who’s the same age as me but has devoted his whole career so far to making udon by hand (you can tell; he’s got the arms for it). I’d heard it was pretty good, that they make their noodles from scratch, they’re freshly made, freshly cut, cooked to order, and really good.

I ordered the iwashi-ten bukkake udon; instead of the noodles being served in a big bowl of soup they come with a hot pour-over soup that’s a bit more concentrated in flavour. The noodles were neatly laid out, folded over one another, almost as if they’d been gently laid to rest. On the side there was a little dish of negi and freshly grated ginger, plus the sardine (iwashi) tempura I’d ordered.

It was the best thing I could’ve had at that point in time: the noodles fresh, thick, chewy but with a firm bite, slippery, perfect. The soup – made fresh daily from dried fish and kelp, no preservatives or flavour enhancers – was deeply, but not intensely, flavoured. The tempura – a butterflied sardine, plus what I think was shishito – was almost effervescent in its crispness. Everything tasted as udon should – no surprises – but nothing was off, it was how udon would taste in a dream.

It occurred to me that although udon is ubiquitous (even in Japanese restaurants in Wellington!), good udon like this is hard to find.