Chill Out with Kyoto’s Flowing NoodlesPhotos by Anna Mindess Food Features Japanese food
I am wilting like an over-watered plant in Kyoto’s steamy summer. The lush gardens, gleaming shrines and narrow, cobbled streets are charming, but the heat and humidity make me feel like I’m permanently encased in a sauna.
Thankfully, my friend and Kyoto-native, Tomoko, suggests the perfect outing to revive me: a cooling lunch of chilled noodles served at a restaurant perched atop a cascading mountain stream. The only hitch is that we’ll need to wield our chopsticks to catch the somen (thin wheat noodles) as they come whizzing down the icy water rushing through a bamboo tube. Nagashi Somen or “flowing noodles” is a traditional treat to cope with Japan’s sultry summers.
On our 20-minute train ride from Kyoto to the village of Kibune, Tomoko tells me that enjoying flowing noodles is a special event. In the old days, she says, families or neighbors would cut down a long bamboo trunk, split it, wash it out and set it up like a slide with running water coursing through it.
Some families, neighbors or schools still beat the heat by setting up their own bamboo flume in the backyard. After briefly cooking the skinny somen noodles and preparing the dipping sauce, they gather the kids around the bamboo trough and let the fun begin. A shout of “Iku yo!” signals “Here we go!” and the person designated as noodle launcher releases clumps of slippery white strands— as in this video.
But Tomoko and I are headed to Hirobun, the only local restaurant that serves this refreshing, edible adventure. We transfer to a bus for a short ride and I breathe a deep sigh, as the air is noticeably cooler in this forested valley. Then we walk up a narrow mountain road, past picturesque inns and high-end kaiseki restaurants set on platforms over a gushing river. Even though it’s an uphill trek to the very last eating spot at the top of the path, the forest’s shaded greenery, undulating thrum of cicadas and river breezes are revitalizing — plus it’s twenty degrees cooler than in the city.
On an open-air deck, we take a number and wait our turn for a place at the noodle bar. I notice that this popular restaurant adds a stainless steel gutter inside the traditional bamboo pipe — perhaps for ease of cleanup or added speed? The crowd of delighted diners is seated ten at a time at the riverside noodle bar and treated to a spectacular view and cooling air from nearby dramatic waterfalls. With bowls of dipping sauce and chopsticks at the ready, their noodles zoom by and they giggle, grab, dip and enjoy.
Then it’s our turn to be seated. As the server brings us each a bowl of dipping sauce and chopsticks to nab our noodles, she points out which of the several pipelines are assigned to which diners and suddenly the chase is on, as the speedy strands zoom by hungry patrons. Squeals of delight or frustration are heard all around, followed by murmurs of enjoyment. Tomoko is seated “downstream” from me, so she can snag a clump of noodles if I miss it, which I do on the first round. Then she shares her strategy: stand the ends of the chopsticks in the water to act as a dainty dam. It works! My chilled nest of noodles, dipped in tangy sauce, tastes even better for having caught it. Once we get the hang of it, the challenge is to grab your noodles, try to take a photo, dip and eat before the next bundle comes whizzing by. All the diners seem to be attempting this juggling act. After a dozen or so rounds, a last tangle of pink noodles silently slides by to announce the final serving.
On our walk back down the hill, we stop at a dramatic Shinto shrine lined with rows of stately red lanterns, which is dedicated to the god of rain and water. (I make a silent entreaty for a little cooling rain, please).
Anna Mindess leads a double life in Berkeley, California. She is a food and travel writer and a sign language interpreter, two fields bridged by a fascination with culture. Her work has been published in Oakland Magazine, Edible East Bay, KQED’s Bay Area Bites and The Washington Post. Share her visual take on the world via Instagram @annamindess.