My eight day stay in Japan may not be long enough to discover good noodles. Currently my list ranges from rubbery convenience store soba in Osaka, to mushy gelatinous udon in rural Kyoto.
So when I arrive in Tokyo, a city of over 12 million people, who eat noodles for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks in between, I have high expectations. Surely the odds of finding good noodles are with me?
On my first evening, after sight-seeing in the district of Shibuya, I duck down a side alley and into the first noodle bar I find. When my order arrives I’m faced with a greasy soup of undercooked udon (thick wheat noodles), fatty chicken and floating burnt cabbage. The empty booths, desperate waitress and bar’s outlook onto naked neon women were a warning but not one I heeded.
Local tip offs are a godsend in this kind of situation. According to a restaurant owner near my hotel, the best noodle bar in Tokyo can be found in the Ginza district. It is called Sakata. The name acts like a drumming mantra all day on my sorry palate, ‘Sakata, Sakata, Sakata’. For someone unwilling to eat below par noodles ever again, it’s an irresistible beat.
At 7pm, as per the restaurant owner’s instructions, I catch the Yūrakuchō line to Ginza-itchōme station and exit through gate 4. An hour and a half later I can feel the streets of fashionable Ginza through the soles of my shoes.
After three different sets of directions, I’m still none the wiser as to Sakata’s location.
Then a swarthy shop owner on a cigarette break draws me a map, even going as far as to put in the traffic lights, much to my amusement. For what follows, this turns out to be extremely helpful. Counting traffic lights is the only way I can negotiate the number of streets, since street signs are in kanji – the Japanese character system.
But the map’s directions lead to a fried chicken franchise in a dead end street. Nearing desperation I ask inside for the umpteenth time, where is Sakata?
A short-skirted waitress with a shiny pony-tail, assesses the seriousness of the situation and gets her sharp-suited manager involved. All three of us stand in the empty street and time stands still while the manager considers, and then, not very convincingly, points in the opposite direction.
He says something in Japanese and the waitress translates for my benefit, “He thinks it’s over there.” Then, after they discuss it further, she admits sheepishly, “He says actually he doesn’t know where Sakata is but he knows a great noodle bar and he wants to show you”.
We all shuffle next door. The manager reads the kanji sign, apparently for the first time. It says ‘Sakata’. Laughter is the cure for hunger.
As I mount the three flights of stairs to Sakata there’s a sense of satisfaction in knowing that my persistence to reach good noodles has paid off. I could tell the waiter at Sakata of my strange and momentous journey, but he wouldn’t understand. No one here speaks English.
Even so he expects me to understand the drinks menu. Perhaps after ten cups of saki, kanji makes sense. Alas, after my first free cup, it’s still indecipherable. The dim lighting doesn’t help. Sakata is a dark steamy sauna of murmuring groups of Japanese business men and waiters, flitting bat-like through the gloom.
Since my waiter’s English repertoire consists of ‘fork’ I don’t need to worry about making small talk. Anyway it’s common in Japanese restaurants for diners not to even acknowledge waiting staff. A curt nod, a sumimasen (excuse me) when your waiter’s forgotten the chopsticks and loud slurping are all quite acceptable behaviours. As is consuming weird and wonderful food.
Some Japanese restaurants think nothing of serving up grasshoppers pickled in soy sauce, horse sashimi, jellied pig ears, squid ink sushi and goat testicles.
Luckily for me Sakata is relatively conservative. There are around ten dishes of hot udon with choices such as fresh seaweed, fried fish-paste, boiled dried herring fish and kitsune (thinly sliced, fried and boiled tofu). While some dishes sound temptingly spiritual, such as Kama-Tama Udon (noodles mixed with egg and soy sauce), I go for the safe option, Tempura Udon (noodles with lightly battered vegetables in miso soup).
I figure if this is considered the best noodle bar in Tokyo, at least I can use it as the standard for all other tempura udon I consume in the future.
As well as hot, there are a few cold udon options where the noodles are served on a zaru (little woven basket) and come with separate dipping dishes of sauce. Noodles are dipped in about halfway as you hold the dish slightly under your chin, and then slurped. Not surprisingly in Japan, where etiquette is everything, there is a right way and a wrong way to slurp noodles. Loud, short and decisive is best, anything else is considered the height of uncool.
My fellow diners are expert slurpers. While I delicately sample a complimentary bowl of cold soba, the man seated next to me, tucks into what looks like a square brown jellyfish covered in sesame sauce. He attacks it viciously with his chopsticks until it’s a wobbly mess and loudly hoovers it off the plate.
My dish is served perfectly cooked, with udon noodles swimming in a delicious broth of miso soup, and topped with delicately battered vegetable tempura. There are just the right amount of bean sprouts.
My dining experience at Sakata was worth pounding the pavements for and goes some way to erase the first Shibuya noodle experience from memory. The free-flowing saki also helps.
The Japanese consider it impolite not to completely finish one’s glass so by the time I leave I’m almost convinced I can read kanji. Which will be a definite advantage in finding my way home.