I must confess, I’m a bit of a noodle freak. See a line forming at a ramen shop, I will jump on it, sure to be a winner. The same goes for udon and soba, which between them account for half my diet I imagine. Still, when summer rolls around, there is only one noodle I simply must have close at hand — soumen, the string-thin noodle, served chilled with a refreshing dipping sauce. Satisfying, like a cool sea breeze for the stomach.
Shodoshima, with its unique take on this classic noodle, produces one of the top three soumen varieties in Japan, and since I was visiting the island, I just had to get my noodle fix. However, my plans extended beyond perusing restaurant menus — I wanted the inside story on my favorite noodle.
My destination, Nakabuan, a medium sized soumen company established in 1968, not only has famously delicious fresh soumen, but also offers the chance to tour their factory. You can even try your hand at a bit of noodle splitting fun and games.
Given my involuntarily short haircut, it seemed pointless to don the hairnet, yet nevertheless on it went, along with the slippers, and into the heart of the factory we ventured.
The owner, Nakabu Yoshikage, welcomed us to his hive of activity. Machines were active all around, taking large clumps of dough and twisting, squeezing, collecting and then starting the process all over again. A succession of machines dutifully played their role until, finally, I could recognize my slender summer companion.
An excellent guide, Nakabu not only explained the process of making soumen — a thirteen-hour process starting at 4 am— but was wonderfully knowledgeable and engaging with his potted history of soumen and its role in Shodoshima life.
In the early 1600s soumen was introduced from nearby Kobe. A simple mixture of pure water, salt, sesame oil and wheat flour — all ingredients readily available. Wheat in particular was a perfect fit with the island’s climate. Low startup costs for production meant farmers with little to do in the winter were soon attracted to noodle making, to the point where there were 650 operations underway during the Meiji era.
Now there are only about 200 factories in operation on Shodoshima, but the fair and dry weather in winter and access to premium ingredients remain constant, and as a result the island’s soumen is sought after for its unique texture and taste. The island’s producers have also been innovative with the recipe, and soumen married with another of the island’s success stories, olive production, is pushing the rather staid noodle market in interesting directions.
Nakabuan is quite an innovative company, going as far as even having their own olive grove to secure a constant supply of high quality olive oil, and ensure superiority in product quality. Nakabu’s concern that not just tourists, but even locals had no idea how soumen was actually made led him to establish one of the island’s first soumen experience tours early in 2002.
Luckily for those on the experience course, they don’t have to get to the factory at 4 am to start preparing the dough and spend hours feeding the ever diminishing soumen snake into the machines. Participants get to do the really fun bit, which is to stretch the final roll of soumen dough from its 50 cm length, at about 1 cm thickness, to its final length of 150 cm and a diameter in millimeters, after which you have to separate a tangle of dough threads using 2 oversize chopsticks.
There is something strangely satisfying about parting the sticky mess, kind of like shaking a tangled mop of hair to have it come out completely straight. While I was nowhere near as deft in doing this as my instructor, it didn’t take long to get the hang of it. Though I don’t think I’d be up to the task of wrangling dozens of pallet-fulls which need to be hand separated and prepared for drying every day. Something best left for the pros. Besides, my stomach wouldn’t allow me to do more than the 40 minutes tour — I had seen delicious noodles close up and was hankering for its my fill.
Originally the soumen experience tour only covered the factory operation, but there was a constant demand from visitors to actually try the noodles they had been getting intimate with. Nakabu’s solution was to open a small noodle cafeteria, and since 2007 he has been serving the fresh (non-dried) noodles that, away from the factory door, are so hard to find. Serving a superior product has helped build a formidable reputation for Nakabuan, and now the cafeteria has grown to a restaurant, attracting noodle gourmets from far and wide.
While I may have come to the conclusion that I was better suited to eating noodles than making then, I enjoyed my sneak peek at the noodle making process immensely. I dare say my soumen proselytizing will reach fever pitch in the coming summer.
Photographs & Text by Steve Jarvis