A Man and His Noodles
In a traditional bungalow along a winding road, a Japanese noodle maker is fixated on kneading a big ball of cold dough.
His wrinkled hands are thick and strong, and his physique has been shaped over the years of hard work. Yet he shows no signs of fatigue, lips softly pressed together and expression neutral. His shoulders meet his ears as he presses his fists into the dough, the circular rhythm of each hand alternating with the other. It’s a dance he’s practiced for at least seventy years.
His hands become more forgiving as he lifts the dough mass from beneath its center with one hand, letting the sides slowly spread like molasses toward the flour-covered wooden surface below. His face gives away slight hints of frustration—he’s analyzed the texture almost immediately, and it doesn’t quite please him. He continues to knead.
He makes noodles in a modest shop on Naoshima, a peaceful island in Japan’s Inland Sea that is home to only about 3,500 people. The island’s rolling hills can be traversed on foot in under an hour. Naoshima is known for its art museums and outdoor art displays, but this tiny noodle shop stays relatively hidden from all that. It’s been running in much the same way for generations, a house of culinary art.
Customers can choose between four or five seats at a wooden counter or a handful of small, wooden tables. Like the décor, the menu is simple: a limited selection of hot udon and soba bowls. The maker stays behind the counter, his side facing the customers.
The dough is ready. Rolling pin in hand, he begins to press through the mass as his free fingers sprinkle flour on top. When the dough reaches an even one centimeter thickness, he picks it up and begins to twirl it on top of his fists, letting it naturally spread out in three-dimensional space. The dance continues.
Most customers here are regulars. The noodle maker’s wife writes an order for curry udon on a small pad of paper, greeting everyone with polite familiarity and precise efficiency. She takes care of the customers and the business; the noodle maker’s sole focus is his craft. They don’t look at or talk to one another as they work. It’s clear that they each fully understand and devote themselves to their own roles in the partnership, and they trust the other to do the same.
The silky dough lays justly defeated, flat on the counter. An udon kiri (a specialized knife for cutting udon noodles) is waiting nearby, the handle attached by screw to an old, wooden contraption that measures noodle width evenly. The noodle maker places his left hand on the dough, fingers slightly curled for safety. And then, with his right, he begins to move the wide blade up and down at a regular clip. The clean slice of knife through dough sounds throughout the shop. His curled fingers retreat over the dough systematically, leaving in their wake rectangular noodles half a centimeter in width and height. His method produces noodles so real that though they are consistent in size, no two are truly identical.
In a finale refreshingly free of grandeur, he twists and stretches his raw noodles in the air. The thick strands are repeatedly vaulted high and slammed on the counter. The sound captivates—no one is speaking, but no one directly watches, either.
He places his noodles in a vat of boiling water, where he conscientiously checks their texture between his thumb and pointer finger. His brow creases. What is it about these noodles and water that aren’t meeting his expectations? He gets started on the next ball of dough, but returns to the boiling vat at least a dozen or so more times to gently pinch the noodles and peer at them. His knowledge is intuitive, priceless, and it makes his noodles the best.
Minutes later, he finally seems satisfied. His wife transfers portions to big, round bowls and shuttles them out to eager customers. The noodle maker leans against his counter and wipes his brow, amidst a chorus of grateful slurps.