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High schoolers seek to keep local udon alive

Norihito Suzuki

The Japan News

Fujiyoshida, Japan  /  Sat, May 18, 2019  /  08:22 pm
High schoolers seek to keep local udon alive

Niku udon made by the udon club features extra-thick noodles, cabbage and horse meat. (The Japan News / Yomiuri Shimbun/Norihito Suzuki)

Located at the base of Mt. Fuji, the city of Fujiyoshida, Yamanashi Prefecture, prides itself on its local specialty of Yoshida udon noodles.

The dish contains firm noodles and is served with boiled cabbage and salty-sweet horse meat. It is said to have been locally made from around the beginning of the Showa era (1926-1989), when the textile industry prospered in the area. Men would prepare the dish for lunch so female workers could continue weaving without cooking a meal.

Fujiyoshida is home to about 60 udon restaurants, many of which have long lines during lunchtime. Yet until recently, the city’s udon was barely known among tourists and others outside the region.

About 10 years ago, students at the prefectural Hibarigaoka High School in the city created a website introducing local udon restaurants as part of their studies on how to design websites. “Udon club” was subsequently founded by students at the school in 2015 as a means of promoting udon. The club has four members.

The club’s members created the “Udon Navi” pamphlet, through which they introduce local udon restaurants, and distribute copies at convenience stores and michi-no-eki roadside facilities. They plan to distribute another 20,000 pamphlets in May. Recognition of locally produced udon has risen thanks in part to their efforts.

“Because of their PR activities, the number of tourists who come to my restaurant has increased. I’m very grateful,” said Koji Watanabe, 54, a representative for udon restaurant Kurechi Udon.

However, the city’s udon restaurants now face a new problem. Making udon by hand is very labor-intensive and time-consuming, and a number of restaurants have closed due to the aging of their owners and a lack of successors. Ten restaurants have closed over the past 10 years, and according to the udon club survey, the majority of existing restaurants do not have a handover plan.

Amid these circumstances, the club has operated a pop-up udon restaurant on Sundays at the Selva supermarket head store in the city since April last year.

“We wanted to do something to prevent the Yoshida udon culture from dying out,” said Tsubasa Konno, 18, a fourth-year high school student enrolled in a four-year course who is head of the udon club.

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The company operating the Selva supermarket store supports their cause and has provided the space for their restaurant free of charge.

The club members have adopted a trial-and-error approach to promoting Yoshida udon. They learned how to make noodles by hand and achieve the right firmness at udon restaurants they visited for interviews. They used a dashi made from dried bonito flakes and niboshi dried sardines, and even prepared their own original seasoning.

Although the pop-up restaurant is open for only three hours on Sundays, they have attracted close to 100 customers on some days. Club leader Konno has become skilled at boiling noodles.

“I’m happy I can casually eat authentic udon here as the number of udon restaurants is shrinking,” Shoko Wakebe, 27, a company employee who eats at the restaurant almost every month, said with a smile.

Many people have urged the club to increase the number of days they open the restaurant, and club members are considering opening it on weekdays with elderly people who will assist the club’s activities.

“Nothing makes me happier than when people say our noodles taste good,” said Konno. “Going forward, we want to convey the appeal of Yoshida udon to even more people.”

Regional promotional efforts

The characteristics of udon differ throughout Japan, with various regions using udon as a means of promoting local revitalization.

Kagawa Prefecture, which is famous for sanuki udon, promotes itself as the “Udon Prefecture” as part of a tourism campaign. A video in which actor and Kagawa native Jun Kaname declared, “[Kagawa] is hereby renamed Udon Prefecture,” attracted widespread attention. An “udon bus” in the prefecture takes visitors to tourist spots and famous restaurants.

In Saitama Prefecture, the second-largest producer of udon among prefectures, a pamphlet introduces visitors to locations with local varieties of the udon noodle. The city of Kazo in the prefecture is promoting “Kazo udon,” which features servings of cooled noodles eaten with a light tsuyu soup.

Fujiyoshida, Yamanashi Pref.

The area of Fujiyoshida has long thrived as a gateway for climbers heading to Mt. Fuji and remains a popular destination for those visiting the mountain and the Fuji five lakes.

Another popular attraction in the city is Fuji-Q Highland, an amusement park famous for its scream-inducing roller coasters. More than five million tourists visit the city each year.

In 2013, Mt. Fuji was registered as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site and has attracted a rapidly growing number of foreign tourists.

The city is also known as a textile-producing area and is famous for its gunnai orimono high-quality silk products, which are used for neckties, scarves, umbrella cloth and other products. As of Feb. 1, its population was 49,045.

This article appeared on The Japan News newspaper website, which is a member of Asia News Network and a media partner of The Jakarta Post