Sponsored by Toon City.
Toon, a small town with a rather lovely name, is located in the Ehime Prefecture, on Shikoku Island. Let’s be honest, it is nothing like Kyoto or Hiroshima. What I mean by that is that this region of Japan is far from being as popular or as visited as these destinations. And yet, after spending a weekend there, I can say I have was pleasantly surprised by this small town and all it has to offer.
Kamihayashi Mizunomoto: An open-air restaurant near Toon
If you enjoy mountainous landscapes and small winding roads, you will most definitely enjoy spending some time in Toon. Kamihayashi Mizunomoto (上林水の元そうめん流し) is a small renowned local restaurant located halfway through the road leading to Saragamine Mountain. Surrounded by greenery, each turn on that road offers a breathtaking view on the prefecture and instantly sets the tone for what’s to come: an immersive nagashi somen tasting experience in nature.
Good to know: The closest train station is Minara Station. From there, you will need your own vehicle to get to the restaurant (30 min or so from there) and overall to navigate in the mountain.
What is nagashi somen ?
If you are like me, chances are you have never heard of nagashi somen. Japanese cuisine is well-known worldwide, and yet this intriguing dish has not crossed international borders as easily as sushi, ramen or yakitori. I must say though, it is much more than just a dish, but rather a fun cultural experience in its own right.
Let’s start with somen noodles: these are thin white noodles made of wheat flour. In Japan, they are most of the time eaten as a cold dish, simply dipped into a broth (a cold one too). Combined with the word nagashi though, it ends up being a much funnier experience. Stemming from the verb “nagasu” (流す), it literally means “to flow,” nagashi somen are simply noodles flowing in water in an open pipe going around the restaurant! Seems intriguing right? I agree. Let me demystify the whole thing with a couple of pictures:
The nagashi somen culinary experience
Originally, the pipe through which the noodles flow is made out of bamboo. But I guess because of maintenance reasons, it is easier and cheaper for restaurants to use one that is made of metal. That being said, I am pretty sure you can still find a few purists that will offer you the fully authentic experience with a bamboo pipe. But anyway, bamboo or not, the experience is fun no matter what!
Even though I have had eight months of practice eating with chopsticks, I have to admit that I was a bit worried at the idea of catching flowing somen using those…won’t it go too fast? Won’t it slip? Well, the answer is no. And even if your first try happens to be a failure, I guess it is all part of the fun, isn’t it?
Once caught, the noodles are almost ready to eat. You will only need a mere 5 seconds to dip them into the bowl you will have been given by the very nice man when paying. What’s inside that bowl? It is actually up to you to make your own little recipe. On the counter right above the pipe, you will find all sorts of ingredients to add to the standard broth: onion, green onion, herbs, ginger. Plenty of flavors to experiment with.
To be honest, I wasn’t expecting much from a gustatory point of view. And even though this isn’t exactly fine cuisine, it is the perfect refreshing summer meal. A small shaded area far from the summer heat complete with the soothing sound of water flowing in the pipe, what more could you need?
Before leaving the place, I decided to take a look at the back of the restaurant. As it is an open-air restaurant in the middle of nature, it is easy going around it and taking a look at the staff working. Water is flowing in abundance everywhere, from the kitchen space to the dishwashing area. A rather chaotic but charming organisation that only Japanese people can truly master, especially in the countryside.
Going for a walk at the foot of Saragamine Mountain
After such a delightful and entertaining meal, why not take a moment for a small health walk? Only ten minutes away from the restaurant (this is again by car) is the Kamihayashi Shinrin Park, at the foot of Saragamine Mountain. It is a very popular place during the hot and humid summer days because of its Kaza Ana (風穴), a small corner in the middle of the park where a special phenomenon happens: a rock formation naturally releasing a fresh breeze, allowing visitors to cool off around it.
Wandering through Shinrin Park
If like me you are looking for a bit more peace (yes, Kaza Ana can be crowded with visitors), Shinrin Park offers a lovely stroll at the foot of Saragamine Mountain. You will find there lots of greenery, as well as many colors too, with an entrance full of beautiful blue flowers.
The park is not that large and you can have a look around pretty quickly. That being said, it is as easy as it is pleasant to just lose yourself amongst the trees, through which the sunlight tries to make its way. Many wooden benches can be found in the vegetation. They are ideal to sit down and take a moment to listen to the multitude of birds and insects singing in harmony.
Trekking Saragamine Mountain
For those of you who feel adventurous and would like more than just a stroll in a park, there is always the option of going up into the mountains. I am not going to lie, with the summer heat I was not so keen on hiking but I did walk around some of the mountain paths to get lost in the forest. You simply have to follow the signs (in Japanese only) and go wherever the small – but much appreciated – breeze is guiding you.
Only a mere 30-minute ride from Toon, Saragamine is the perfect place for an outdoor getaway, sheltered from the beating sun. If you ever decide to visit Ehime Prefecture, I highly recommend a stop there. And if your stomach starts grumbling, remember there is a bowl of nagashi somen waiting for you nearby! 😉
Original text: Pierre Babin
Translation: Marion Pont