Understanding Udon: The Ultimate Guide to Japan’s Thickest Noodles

By Annika Hotta
Updated: April 16, 2024

Whether you prefer ramen, udon, or soba, there’s no question that Japan has a wide variety of well-loved noodle dishes. Like its thinner counterparts, udon can be served hot or cold, making it a versatile dish in the harsh Japanese climate.

Made from flour and lightly salted water, the texture and thickness of the udon varies across the country. Their mild flavor and bouncy texture make a great addition to any dish — not to mention they’re much easier to handle with chopsticks! 

Brief history of udon

A busy street in China, as people walk through the rain in front of neon signs and lit paper lanterns.

Udon noodles are said to have been invented in China and brought to Japan during the famine of the Nara period (710 to 794). They didn’t become popular until the Edo Period in the 1600s when regions started making their own udon specialties.

Takinomiya Tenmangu shrine in Ayagawa, Kagawa Prefecture, is reportedly the birthplace of udon. The monk Kukai learned how to make udon while studying in China, bringing back the method to his family. 

They would eat noodles at the gate of the shrine, something that later became a tradition for people traveling to the Kotohira shrine, another shrine in Kagawa whose spiritual importance matches Ise Jingu.

These two places were the only exception to the ban on traveling for commoners, so to celebrate this journey, they would eat the Sanuki udon and spread the word upon returning home. 

How to make udon noodles 

A serving of zaru soba on a bamboo tray, garnished with spring onion.

These days, there are more convenient options for procuring udon noodles: you can buy pre-packaged udon and boil them for about 10 minutes, or you can even buy udon noodles that are already cooked for you in the supermarket — so convenient in the lethargic summer months or for busy days. 

However, the more time-consuming task of making udon noodles from scratch can be a fun learning experience, too!

For example, did you know that Japanese people knead the dough with their feet instead of using their hands? According to Just One Cookbook, this is because the dough is tough to knead with the hands, but I’m sure it can be done with the hands or a pasta maker if you have one! 

What makes the from-scratch method take so long is the resting periods in between each step, which is why it’s better to do it with friends. Why not try one of our udon cooking classes so you can socialize and make fresh noodles at the same time?

You can make udon directly at your accommodation in the birthplace of Sanuki udon, Kagawa Prefecture, where you’ll stay for a night at a traditional Japanese farm, harvest your own veggies, and make udon from scratch. 

A family-friendly udon cooking class in Kyoto, with two women and a young girl rolling fresh udon dough.

For those traveling with kids, this family-friendly udon cooking class in Kyoto is also a great option, giving you a chance to experience Kyoto’s beautiful countryside and make fresh udon noodles.

Types of udon noodles 

There are countless types of udon dishes out there to choose from, but here is a short list of the most popular ones to try on your next visit to an udon restaurant. 

Kitsune udon 

Kitsune udon, with udon, fishcakes, spring onion, and fried tofu in a bowl.

Hailing from Osaka, this udon is served hot and topped with aburaage — a piece of fried tofu boiled in soy sauce. This simple dish is perfect for when you’re craving a light meal. 

Yaki udon 

A serving of yaki udon, with stir-fried udon, meat and cabbage.

Anytime you see “yaki,” on a Japanese menu, it refers to something fried or grilled. In this case, yaki udon means stir-fried noodles, which are seasoned with dashi and a thick sauce. The dish will likely include local vegetables and be topped with green onions. 

Yaki udon is recommended when you want a lot of texture and a punchy flavor. 

Nabeyaki udon

A steaming pot of nabeyaki udon, including udon noodles, mushrooms, fishcakes, and a boiling egg.

“Nabe” refers to a large soup pot. Nabeyaki udon is udon noodles that are served in a soup with tempura, vegetables, or eggs. These noodles will be softer after stewing in the soup. As this dish warms you up, it’s best to eat it in the colder winter months. 

Curry udon 

A bowl of curry udon, showing udon noodles and meat in a cozy bowl of curry soup.

The best of two comfort foods, curry udon is simply the addition of udon noodles to a Japanese curry. The curry roux is typically thinned with a soup base, and it’s known for making a bit of splash, so break out the bib and remove your glasses when consuming this filling dish! 

Zaru udon

Zaru udon, served on a bamboo tray.

During the hot summer months in Japan, cold noodle dishes like zaru udon are a blessing. Served on a bamboo tray, these chilled noodles are topped with shredded seaweed and dipped in a tsuyu soup base. Complete the meal with a side of tempura for a refreshingly light summer dish!

Salad udon 

A bowl of salad udon, featuring udon with broccoli, tomatoes, and salmon flakes.

If you want to add freshness to your udon, salad udon might be the perfect option. Another cold noodle dish, these boiled and chilled udon noodles are topped with lettuce, tomatoes, tsuyu, soy sauce, and tuna or salmon seasoned with mayonnaise. 

5 best places to eat udon noodles in Japan

A soba and udon stall in Japan, with four people eating at the counter.

With so many different regional varieties, you’ll surely find a delicious bowl of udon anywhere you go. But for those looking for a little more guidance, check out this list of the top udon restaurants in Japan. We can even remove the worry of getting a seat by making a reservation for you. 

1. Tsuru Ton Tan (Tokyo)

A serving of kitsune udon at Tsuru Ton Tan, with fried tofu, fishcake, and udon noodles in a broth.

Starting in Osaka in 1989, Tsuru Ton Tan has since branched out and now has multiple spots in Tokyo. They have a few more unusual options like Hakata Mentaiko Cream Udon, a creamy pink spicy noodle soup, and Tenzaru no Oudon — a perfect dish to cool down during the summer — serving udon over ice, alongside a dipping sauce, egg, pickles, and sesame seeds.

You can also get two free noodle refills for free, great for getting every last drop of your broth.

Note: Tsuru Ton Tan only takes reservations for parties ordering from the course menu. For a la carte orders, guests cannot reserve a seat.

Booking the course menu: Before booking through byFood, explore their available course menus and let our team know at the time of booking.

Take your seat for udon at Tsuru Ton Tan >

2. Sanukiudon Byakuan (Osaka)

An udon set meal at Sanukiudon Byakuan, featuring udon noodles in a broth, rice, tempura, and toppings.

Bringing a taste of Kagawa Prefecture to the center of Osaka City, Sanukiudon Byakuan is the place to go for authentic Sanuki noodles — a firm and chewy style of udon which makes for an immensely satisfying meal even by itself. After you’ve tried their al-dente Sanuki style, regular udon will seem flavorless in comparison.

The standard set includes the udon dashi soup — made from a blend of kelp, sardines, and bonito flakes — alongside various pieces of tempura, which is very reasonably priced at around ¥1000. 

It’s no wonder that the Michelin Guide lists Sanukiudon Byakuan as Bib Gourmand, meaning that it’s among the best value-for-money restaurants in the whole city.

3. Iwashiya (Hyogo)

Udon and tempura served on a wooden tray at Iwashiya,

Iwashiya is a cozy spot in Hyogo, using their own special stock to create chewy, handmade udon noodles and a broth that complements every bite. They’re also known for udon with a variety of interesting textures, determined by the temperature and humidity at the time of kneading.

We’d recommend trying their hiyakake udon with a side of cheese balls and onigiri for a filling udon lunch that’ll keep you coming back for more.

4. Kagawa Ippuku

While Kagawa prefecture or major cities like Tokyo, Osaka, or Nagoya might be your first inclination, you don’t have to travel too far for a great bowl of udon. The renowned chain restaurant, Kagawa Ippuku, serves affordable Sanuki-style udon at most train stations nationwide. Make sure to try out their crispy tempura as well!

5. Marugame Seimen (Tokyo) | Marugame Udon (USA)

A serving of udon and tempura at Marugame Seimen,

Marugame Seimen is a popular udon chain in Japan, serving all kinds of hot and cold udon dishes alongside tempura, inari sushi, and a selection of toppings. Something you may not see everywhere is their limited-edition udon shakes, serving up to-go cups of chewy udon and toppings for quick, tasty meals.

For those based in the States, this chain has also made its way across the ocean with a new name: Marugame Udon. Find your nearest location and you’ll soon be watching them make udon right in front of you! 

Want to brush up your Japanese noodle knowledge? Here’s your new reading list:

Not coming to Japan soon but need udon noodles where you are? Explore our udon products and gifts, bringing chewy noodles and more to your door.

Udon FAQs

Udon noodles in a dark broth, garnished with seaweed,

What is udon?

Udon is a type of noodle that is popular in Japan. They are thick, chewy, and believed to have originated in China before making their way to Japan in the Nara period (710-794).

What are udon noodles made from?

Udon noodles are made from wheat flour, water, and salt. They are often served in a dashi-based broth, but can be used in a variety of Japanese dishes.

How to cook udon noodles?

Cooking udon noodles couldn’t be simpler! Boil water in a pan and place your noodles in when it’s bubbling. With fresh udon noodles, you’ll only need to leave them in for about 2-3 minutes. For dried udon noodles, you’ll want to leave them in for about 8-10 minutes. For both, it’s recommended to stir now and then to avoid the noodles sticking together.

But, why cook udon noodles when you can just join one of our udon food tours in Japan?

How to make udon noodles?

Udon noodles only require wheat flour, water, salt (and some recipes recommend corn starch), but they’re slightly harder to make than you might think, relying on an intensive combination of kneading and resting periods.

For a hands-on udon-making class with a Japanese expert, explore our udon cooking classes!

Browse more food experiences in Japan and check out our YouTube channel for unlimited travel inspiration!

We strive to be as accurate as possible and keep up with the changing landscape of Japan's food and travel industries. If you spot any inaccuracies, please send a report.
Click clap if you like this post
Annika Hotta
After studying abroad in Shiga prefecture in 2019, Annika moved to Japan in 2021. In her writing, she highlights the best dishes and places to eat in Japan for both the picky and the adventurous.
Stay in the Loop!
Be the first to know about the latest foodie trends.
Sign up for insider tips & sneak peeks into the diverse world of dining in Japan