A Course Comparing the Tastes of Sanuki Udon in Kagawa, the Udon Prefecture
In 2011, Kagawa prefecture gathered attention from around the country for promoting itself with an imaginary press conference in which the region was changing its name to the “udon prefecture.” Even now, many udon lovers from both within and outside of the prefecture gather in Kagawa to line up in front of popular udon joints every day. The popularity of Sanuki udon is not the same as any ordinary food craze. What is the secret to its popularity? First, it can be said that the mild climate, as well as reservoir and double-cropping technologies were well-fit for producing the crucial flour. It is also blessed with the existence of Sakaide, a city famous for its production of salt. However, another hint can be found in Kagawa prefecture’s long history.
Kukai, also known as Kobo-Daishi, was born near Zentsuji temple. The temple is located in current-day Zentsuji city, a holy place for Sanuki udon. Kukai was a high priest who traveled to China on a Kentoshi (Japanese missions to Tang China) ship in the early Heian period (794-1185) to study, and brought the Shingon Mikkyo to Japan. Legend has it that Kukai also brought to Kagawa food items that used wheat flour dough, which eventually became the origin of udon, and one of his disciples, Chisen, shared Japan’s first udon in Ayagawa of the Ayauta district. However, food that cooked and deep-fried wheat flour dough is thought to have actually been introduced before that in the Nara period, so this theory is not much more than a traditional story.
On the other hand, records show that Kukai made use of the knowledge he obtained from studying abroad to skillfully renovate a large reservoir in his birthplace Kagawa. Manno Lake still is the largest agricultural reservoir in Japan, and has been supporting the daily lives of the people of Kagawa for over a thousand years. As they provided the land with plentiful water and crops, it might be with good reason that Kukai and his disciple were thought to be befitting as being responsible for bringing to Kagawa the prefecture’s beloved udon.
When it comes to representing Kagawa, right next to udon is the Kotohira-gu shrine, which is famous for its Konpira Mairi (Konpira visit). Since long ago, it has been a religious site with a mixture of Buddhism and Shintoism. The “Konpirasai Reizu Byobu” passed down at the Kotohira-gu shrine was painted in the Genroku period. On the painting, three udon shops can be seen depicted along the bustling entrance path to the main shrine. It can be seen that travelers visiting the area for Konpira Mairi in the Edo period enjoyed udon just as we do today. The people kneading dough and cutting noodles are drawn in a lively fashion, and seem to overlap with the skills of the masters of udon from famous udon joints in present day.
It is said that until a few decades ago, udon supported the dining table of the people of Kagawa as a home-cooked food. To enjoy the comfort food of Kagawa, Sanuki udon, where it was born, perhaps is equivalent to enjoying Kagawa prefecture itself.