Ten years ago, my first job in New York City was waiting tables at the Prince Street location of Souen, the city’s oldest and best-known macrobiotic restaurant, now closed. I made fast friends with a co-worker named Sarina, who went to Fashion Institute of Technology; she encouraged me to visit her family with her in Kurashiki, near the Kaminocho station in south central Japan.
Two years later, I made the trip: As soon as I arrived in Japan, I got in touch and took a bullet train to spend a week with what would become my adopted Japanese family.
My spoken Japanese was “maa-maa” (so-so) and Sarina’s dad, who, she said I could just call Otōsan for “father,” spoke a bit of English, so we communicated well enough.
The first night I was there, Otōsan asked me if I would eat udon, and his eyes were skeptical. I told him yes and he said to be ready at 6 a.m.
I paused: Maybe he had misspoken, but he hadn’t. “A.M.,” he said. “Morning.”
Matsuka Seimen is a noodle factory first and restaurant second. As the latter, it’s only open from 6 to 7 a.m. That’s it. Just in front of the entrance to the restaurant is a heavyweight denim split-fabric door with the shop name and a heavy red brushstroke, the symbol for udon.
For this hour, there’s a line of 20 to 30 locals and very few tourists. Written on a big yellow piece of hanging paper, menu options are quite simple and delicious: large or small orders of hand-rolled, freshly cut, meticulously cooked udon.
The shop is a family operation, with everyone working in galoshes and waterproof aprons because there is constant splashing of boiling and ice cold water everywhere.
Youichi Matsuka heads the place, his son makes noodles and does local deliveries after breakfast is finished, and his wife runs the cash register and welcomes guests.
While you’d think you can imagine how one would make noodles, it likely wouldn’t involve stepping on the dough to knead it — with a clean white sheet and clean white socks between dough and feet.
It also involves rolling out the dough, which is surprisingly difficult. Matsuka wears two thick, tight elastic bands just below his elbows. “Tennis elbow?” I joked. “Udon elbow,” he said.
It’s a fast, yet labor-intensive process to cook udon, and you can see everything that leads up to the finished product as you’re in line waiting to order. It starts with measuring flour and water, mixing dough, then rolling out proofed dough to cut into noodles. Then, an employee drops noodles into a massive five-phase cooking trough: Three hard boils stirred with a giant wooden paddle and two cold baths result in perfectly cooked noodles, tested for firmness by one of the Matsuka’s knowing hands.
Some customers take their noodles outdoors to the small patio; others barely make it out the door before finishing their kamatama. Then they head back inside, where everyone does their own dishes and places them on the drying rack.
Otōsan ordered for us. “Kamatama, sho, two,” he said, knowing that kamatama is the only option that matters. It costs 230 yen: It’s a great deal for a life-changing meal, which includes hot noodles, no broth, and a raw egg.
A new customer should watch the person ahead in line who almost certainly ordered the same thing. Follow them to a self-serve condiment bar stocked with chopped scallions, tempura flakes, soy sauce, and a fresh ginger knuckle to grate. Do what they do. Crack the egg into the bowl and mix with chopsticks. The heat of the noodles cooks the egg ever so slightly and the resulting sauce is savory, spicy, crunchy, and best eaten while hot, which makes for a fast meal.
That first morning, I knew that I would taste those noodles in my dreams for years to come. I asked Otōsan if we could get back in line to have another bowl; he said he was too full, but that I was welcome to.
Then he taught me a perfect shorthand, often-used term in the early mornings at Matsuka Seimen: “O kawari.” The same, again.
Johnny Fogg is a photographer and Japanese tea ceremony teacher, raised in Virginia and living and working in New York City.