Japan: Kevin Pilley survives the Japanese equivalent of a pub crawl, with the aid of the tastiest of hangover cures

"I'm afraid I have no Nikkas," said the barman, indicating a row of whisky bottles behind him. I was glad because I had had enough and wanted something to eat instead. Around 10 metres of noodles sounded ample. I was feeling a little the worse for wear after my sightseeing.

"I'm afraid I have no Nikkas," said the barman, indicating a row of whisky bottles behind him. I was glad because I had had enough and wanted something to eat instead. Around 10 metres of noodles sounded ample. I was feeling a little the worse for wear after my sightseeing.

Some old friends had shown me the sights of Tokyo and had introduced me to the ancient art of hashigozake, which is the oriental form of pub- crawling. We had been to several nomiya and izakaya bars, as well as a few yakitori and robatayaki barbecue establishments. We had begun with beer, moved on to the whisky, and after some ochazuke rice soup, a necessary stomach-lining ingredient in any boozy Japanese night out, progressed on to the shochu, a rather too palatable spirit made from grain and sweet potatoes which is meant to be drunk with lemon soda, but was served to me in a pint glass of lukewarm tea.

In two days, the only conversational Japanese I had learnt was "Tsugi ni ikimasho" ("Let's go to another one") and "Nikkas mizuwari" ("Nikkas whisky on the rocks"). Eventually, I had ended up on my own in Yokohama City, a short train journey from Tokyo. I vaguely remember asking to go somewhere different and a little more characterful. Historic, even. Most Japanese bars are either halfway up skyscrapers or buried under the street, in vast underground malls. They are all the same. Very noisy, very expensive and very full of very-happy-to-have-finished-work business types who turn into sponges by nine every night.

The olde-worlde bar downstairs in the Yokohama noodle museum was dark and quiet. There was no neon and no karaoke facilities. Midges danced around a fan. There was just the barman and me. Outside, someone was shouting "Sol la Sil! Sol la Sil!" The barman smiled and told me that is what door- to-door noodle salesmen used to shout to advertise their wares and whereabouts. He asked me what I wanted. Out of politeness I had a sake. Just a nightcap, I promised myself.

My head was already spinning with two day's worth of fermented, polished wine trivia. I knew that sake means "chewing rice" because workers used to soak wads of rice with it to get through the day. I had learnt that it is graded according to its koku or body, the top grade being tokkyu and the lowest, nikyu. I knew that it should be drunk from lacquered wood dishes called sazazuki or a china choko, and served from a tokkuri flask carried on a small hakama tray. You order it hot (atsukan) or cold (hiyasake). I had been told it should be drunk in moderation. And that too much makes your head feel like it has been macheted and then sat on by a Sumo superstar.

It was late. "Futsakayoi?" asked the barman, recognising a watery-eyed hangover. I managed a nod. "Salted plums mashed up with green tea are good remedy," he smiled. "Noodles, too. You should eat. You are in the best place in Japan. In the world."

Upstairs, at the noodle museum, there are audiovisual presentations of famous noodle chefs displaying their talents and giving away top tips on pain-free noodle preparation. Also, there is a permanent exhibition of pot-noodle cartons. It is the world's largest collection. There are about 500 of them in a glass cabinet. Entry to the museum costs Y300 (£ 1.50). A six-month pass is advertised for £ 75.

The barman found me a guide. "Soba comes from buckwheat and udon uses wheat. Raumen is noodle soup," he told me as we began to walk around a repro shabby downtown shitamachi village of the late 1950s located on the museum's bottom floor. "There are many types of noodle. Yellow is coloured by egg. Black by cuttlefish. Red by apricot. Brown by yam and green by tea. Ehimi noodles use 20 different dyes. They are spectacular."

The museum has eight restaurants offering different kinds of traditional noodle meals using every sort of ingredient, from sansai (edible plants) to bonito shavings, lily bulb and lotus flower. A meal costs £ 3. The restaurants are "period" holes-in-the-wall in fake, fuggy alleys hung with "period" laundry. Atmospheric sound-effects come from charumera horns. Everyone is in costume.

Five million bags of noodles are consumed every year in Japan. The first bagged instant noodle appeared in 1968, and the first mugged noodle snack was invented in 1992. But perhaps the most momentous event in the whole history of noodle-making came in the 12th century, when noodles assumed their modern elongated ribbon-like form. Previously, they had been square.

"There are 542 known brands," said the resident noodle historian. "Noodles are as ancient as tea gruel and rice porridge. Far older than sushi. They are the people's food. Into every bowl of noodles, a chef pours his heart and soul and the dreams and spirit of his region. Each city has its speciality foods. Osaka has eels and Okayama has its pilchards. Hokkaido its sea urchins and Hiroshima its oysters."

Every Japanese prefecture has its trademark noodle dish. Hiroshima has roasted noodles. Kumamoto has white-jelly mushrooms and bamboo shoots. Sapporo has miso-flavoured raumen, while Kyoto uses in its shinpuku saikan very thick noodles and spring onions. Tokyo blends soya with dried tuna stock. It is easy for discerning noodle gourmets to tell a Tokyo noodle soup. It is saltier and has a boiled egg floating in it.

My bowl was more of a font than a receptacle. I decided on the local rokkakuya, with its unmistakable extra-thick noodles floating on top of a pork and chicken-bone broth. My guide pointed at the giveaway plaster- strip of seaweed and, tilting his head back, tipped the glutinous glop down his throat.

Just like surviving a Japanese pub crawl, eating noodles is a specialised skill. I had to be shown how to eat. Some practitioners believe you should drink the liquid first and then slurp the noodles before they get mushy. You must never chew noodles. Noodles lose their flavour when chewed. The secret to rudimentary noodle-eating is to try to say the word "scrumptious" loudly into your bowl while simultaneously trying to suck noodles down into your stomach and not down your shirtfront.

Gulping and guzzling sounds are good. They imply a healthy appetite and pleasure in eating. The main thing is not to suck too hard. You might swallow your own lips. As we both smacked ours, my host congratulated me on my efforts. "You have mastered it. The art of eating noodles without affecting elegance." One way of putting it.

Getting there

Kevin Pilley flew to Japan with All-Nippon Airways (tel: 020-7224 8866) which has return flights to Tokyo for £ 557 (30 days APR).

In Yokohama: the Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum is at 2-14-21 Shin-Yokohama, Kohoku-ku (tel: 0081 45 471 0503). In Kyoto: Gion Corner, 1st Floor, Yakaka Hall, Gion, Kyoto (tel: 0081 755611119) is a geisha centre offering lessons and perfomances in the art of geisha, from 1 May to 29 November.

Further information

The Japanese Tourist Office, Heatcoat House, 20 Saville Row, London W1X 1AE (tel: 020-7734 9638).

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