Takamatsu is the capital of Kagawa, Japan's smallest prefecture, and the second-largest city on the island of Shikoku. It is best known as one of the main jumping-off points for the Setouchi Triennale art festival. There are, however, good reasons to visit outside that time – the Zen-like beauty of Ritsurin Garden (motto: "one step, another view") or maybe Japan's longest covered shopping arcade (just under three kilometres, if you must know).
The big reason Japanese visit, though, is for the noodles. Takamatsu is one of Japan's udon capitals and a destination in itself for udon-obsessed Japanese, some of whom come here specifically to hit up to five udon shops in a day. Kagawa is said to have more than 800 udon shops (200 of them in Takamatsu) and is also the largest udon producing prefecture in the country.
And what better way to experience this than to take a trip around Shikoku island with Udon Taxis, a new venture dedicated to showcasing this delicious, budget-friendly meal?
We are met outside the main Takamatsu train station by Daichi Masutani, our driver for the day. Masutani speaks no English but communicates via a translation app on his phone. He is, we discover, an absolute hoot, and his taxi, naturally, has a large plastic udon bowl on the roof.
Our first stop is Uehara-ya udon restaurant in Takamatsu, a place which garners pretty much constant five-star reviews on TripAdvisor for the quality of its food. Imagine a simple self-serve cafe, with communal tables, that serves only one thing but does that one thing to perfection and you pretty much have Uehara-ya. The place is loaded with locals when we arrive and the puzzled looks we receive are evidence this isn't on the main tourist itinerary. Yet.
Basically, you take a tray, line up for your noodles, add a few sides, such as various tempura if you're extra hungry, and when that's done, help yourself to broth from what looks like a giant tea urn. Add condiments – fish flakes, ginger, chili powder, green onions – and you're ready to eat. (I also end up with something called konnyaku, or devil's tongue jelly. It has little taste and is valued for its texture but won't be passing my lips again any time soon.) The udon, though is heavenly; the broth rich and hearty, the noodles perfect.
Our next stop is a specialist udon shop in a tiny village in the countryside about 30 minutes south of Takamatsu. It is unexpectedly closed when we get there – a turn of events that causes our driver no end of stress. We are so full (any restraint went out the window at Uehara-ya) and the drive here, up narrow twisting roads over mountains so gloriously pretty, that we couldn't care less.
We drive through a long flat valley to a shop that specialises in daikon udon. The general gist is much the same here, with the exception that you are encouraged to grate your own daikon. I am not predisposed to daikon, believing it should die in a ditch alongside konnyaku, but I take one for the team and am more than pleasantly surprised, especially when it's tipped on to cold soba noodles alongside ground sesame and lemon juice.
According to Udon Taxi, the average citizen here eats 33 kilograms of udon a year. A few hours ago, that might have seemed a lot but now I think "is that all?".
Cathay Pacific operates more than 70 flights a week to Hong Kong from Australian ports, with onward connections to Japan. See cathaypacific.com.au
JR Clement Inn is a modern hotel close to Takamatsu's train and bus station. See jrclement.co.jp/inn/takamatsu
Inside Japan Tours offers small group tours, tailored self-guided adventures and cultural experiences. The price of Udon Taxi tours vary according to time and destinations. See insidejapantours.com; udon-taxi.com
Keith Austin was a guest of Inside Japan Tours and Cathay Pacific.