I took the 05:27 train from Okayama one cool morning, though by the time I got off at Kaminocho Station just 25 minutes later, the air was already thick and sultry, foretelling another typically sweltering August day in Japan. A short walk down the street led me to a small, industrial-looking building, where a family of four and a handful of other customers were already slurping bowls of wheat udon noodles at tables outside. I parted the curtain hanging across the entry and stepped into the udon factory.
Matsuka Seimen is not a restaurant. It is a third-generation noodle-making factory run by the Matsuka family. Over the past 15 years, the Matsukas have built a reputation for preparing and supplying local grocers with fresh udon. But because the thick noodles’ taste and texture is especially flavourful when it’s boiled immediately after it’s been rolled and cut, people soon began to ask the Matsukas if they’d be willing to set aside a few round, chewy strands to serve on the spot. Thirteen years ago, the family yielded to customer demand and ever since, the factory has sold freshly prepared udon directly to the public – but only from 06:00 to 07:00.
And while the family also serves a handful of other udon, soba and ramen dishes at lunchtime, it is the freshly rolled, cut and boiled morning udon noodles that draws the crowds.
The line forms before 06:00 and as many as 200 people are served on the weekends
At first, it was just locals who showed up. But word quickly spread, and now the line forms before 06:00 and as many as 200 people are served on the weekends, when it’s busiest. Matsuka Seimen’s motto is: “Eating fresh noodles in the morning is important so you can have a good day.” Locals believe the udon warms you, sticks with you and gives you power to face the day.
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The day I visited was a quiet one, with only 50 customers for breakfast. But supermarket orders kept owner Youichi Matsuka busy forming and cooking noodles while his wife, Keiko, weighed and filled the hundreds of packs of udon the family sells each day. Their son, Taichi, makes the dough, transfers the boiling-hot noodles to their cool-down baths and also assists in the weighing and packing for delivery.
The Matsukas never set out to run a restaurant. Until 2006, customers bought their noodles at local shops or stopped by the factory to purchase them. But knowing that the Matsukas were done kneading, cutting and packing their noodles by 08:00, eager patrons began wondering if they’d be willing to boil and serve them, too. At this time, it was only Keiko and Youichi running the noodle-making operation, so they came up with the concept of “My donburi”, where customers could bring their own bowl (donburi) and the couple would serve them their fresh udon with some simple condiments.
Locals believe the udon warms you, sticks with you and gives you power to face the day
Today, the Matsukas provide bowls, but customers wash them after eating. The dry condiments are lined up along the wall adjacent to the noodle-making operation, while the more precious ingredients like raw eggs, chopped scallions (negi) and a homemade spicy condiment (taberu rayu) are kept under Keiko’s watchful eye. A handwritten sign adjures people to only take one spoonful of negi, but Keiko generously encourages regular customers to take “a lot of negi… it’s delicious!”
Soy sauce, noodle dipping soup, ponzu (citrus soy), katsuobushi (smoked, dried skipjack tuna) and tenkasu (deep-fried tempura batter bits) are also provided and set up along the narrow table stretching down the hallway where people queue for their udon.
At roughly 60, Youichi has spent much of his life surrounded by udon. His father had an udon factory, and growing up, Youichi would help out there doing odd jobs, so udon is in his blood. But as the second son, Youichi was not designated to take over the family business. Instead, he made a living driving a truck well into his 40s.
Youichi’s older brother, Kazumasa, took over the family udon operation, and later merged with a larger Okayama udon company. Unfortunately, in 2002, the parent company decided to close the Matsuka udon outpost due to a decline in neighbourhood fruit and vegetable shops, where fresh packaged udon was traditionally sold. The local area was thus left with no udon maker. Kazumasa appealed to Youichi to revive the family’s udon factory. Youichi had tired of being on the road constantly driving a truck and felt the call to come back to his roots. So in 2004, he and Keiko resurrected the Matsuka business at a different location near Kaminocho Station.
After two years of only producing packaged udon, soba and ramen, in 2006 Youichi and Keiko gave in to their customers’ pleas and began offering freshly boiled udon out of their noodle factory. Two years later, their son Taichi joined them. Today, he also prepares the spicy taberu rayu condiment made with roughly cut sautéed onion, chopped garlic, dried red chillies and sesame seeds (with “lots of love!”, as he said) that the family serves with the noodles. In the afternoons, Taichi’s sister delivers the family’s udon to local shops, schools and hospitals. Unlike soba and ramen, which are typically eaten in broths that require more elaborate preparation, udon is often eaten with a simple list of condiments, which made it easier for the Matsukas to serve on site.
I was greeted warmly by the Matsukas as I entered the kitchen. Youichi referred to Taichi as “the boss”, but I could tell he was really in charge. Nonetheless, Taichi makes the dough and helps his Youichi and Keiko with the noodle cooking, packing and serving. He is also the factory manager and runs the day-to-day business operations. Keiko greets the customers and Youichi is the noodle-rolling master. Youichi is self-possessed and moves with fluidity between the vats of boiling water, the noodle-rolling board and cutting machine. Taichi, working with quiet efficiency, wears a jaunty cap backwards, along with a wide smile.
Matsuka Seimen produces between 50kg and 75kg of udon each day. Taichi pours the flour and uchiko starch into the kneading machine and adds water. After the dough has come together and has been kneaded for about seven minutes, he releases the dough particles out of the handled hopper that plucks the dough out of the kneading trough and drops it into plastic tubs where he mashes it down by hand. Next, he covers the dough with a clean cotton cloth, dons new socks on his feet, and kneads the dough for a few minutes more by stepping all over it in a rhythmic fashion, as is traditionally done. The dough is stored in the tubs in the walk-in refrigerator to rest until the next day. Because the dough is too hard to roll entirely by hand, it is first rolled by a machine. It’s later rolled by hand to add texture and finally made into noodles by being put through a small cutting machine right before boiling.
Serving freshly boiled noodles is essential at Matsuka Seimen. “Thirty minutes after boiling, the udon loses its toothsome quality. It becomes a completely different thing,” Youichi explained.
Youichi belives that “noodles are living things”. And as such, Matsuka Seimen changes the ratio of the lower-gluten udon flour (hakurikiko) and the higher-gluten bread flour (kyorikiko), starch and water, as well as the resting time, according to the humidity and ambient air temperature. Otherwise, there has been no change in their style of noodle-making since 1988 when Youichi’s father started the family udon business.
Youichi belives that “noodles are living things”
Since some people prefer their noodles freshly boiled and refreshed rather than hot, some noodles will be served cold on premises each morning. Others will be sealed in individual packets to be consumed at hospitals or schools or will go on sale at local supermarkets. In these cases, the noodles are immediately plunged into an ice-cold water bath right after boiling. Twice. As Taichi swirled the noodles in the second cold water bath, he revealed the reason: “This double cool-down shocks the noodles to stop their cooking and to give them structural integrity.”
As the customers stroll up to the cash box, Keiko takes the order, handles the money (the price is determined by the addition of egg or not) and calls out to her son and husband: “sho” (small) or “dai” (large). Once the noodles are freshly boiled, one of the three Matsukas hands over the bowls to the customers’ outstretched hands and they then add the toppings. It seems that many of the customers are regulars. Keiko keeps up a running commentary with the waiting customers, who Yoichi proudly tells me range in age from 0 to 100.
I opted for the hands-down favourite style of udon: kama tama, udon with a raw egg and optional toppings. Although options such as curry udon or udon with grated dakon exist on the morning menu, most people just order the simplest version, with or without raw egg. Taichi slid the just-cooked udon out of the hopper and handed me a bowl. I carefully cracked a raw egg on top of the hot noodles, drizzled them with soy sauce and mixed the whole into a creamy mass. While the udon was still piping hot, I slurped the firm, yet soft noodles up as quickly as I could. And as I did, the two hours of sleep and 04:30 wake up alarm became a thing of the past. I finally understood the restorative power of morning udon.
Around 08:00, just in time for a family break, Taichi’s wife and two chattering daughters stopped by to say hello. We took a commemorative photo outside of the shop and they waved goodbye as I set out towards Kaminocho Station. Replete from my first bowl of morning udon, I felt ready to face the day head on.
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