Starting in the rainy season, an interesting phenomenon starts to arise in restaurants in Japan. Long chutes made of halved bamboo stalks stream fresh, cool, water carrying bite-sized bundles of chilled somen noodles. Diners seated (or standing) along the length of bamboo chutes wait with rapt attention, quickly grabbing the bundles of noodles as they go by. They dip the noodles in a small dish containing cold men-tsuyu and ground mountain yam before popping the bundles in their mouths. This unique, spectacular dining experience is called nagashi somen, or flowing noodles, and is a popular summer treat all across Japan.
Somen are a type of very thin wheat noodle, usually less than 1.3mm in diameter. Unlike the similarly long, thin noodles of western spaghetti, somen are made long and thin by repeatedly stretching the dough into progressively longer and thinner sections and then allowing them to air-dry. Somen noodles are eaten all year round in Japan. In the winter, they are eaten hot, typically as part of a soup dish called nyumen, and in the summer they are eaten cold with a dipping sauce.
Nagashi somen as a way of dining originated in the southern town of Takachiho in 1959 at a restaurant called House of Chiho. One summer, the staff at the restaurant dreamed up the idea as a way to incorporate the area’s well known fresh, spring water into a novel way of serving a basic dish to customers. After nagashi somen was introduced to House of Chiho’s customers, it was not long before it caught on in other places. Nagashi somen has become so popular that appliances to facilitate the flowing water can be purchased for home use. Despite the capacity for home convenience, the traditional style of sending noodles down bamboo chutes has an enduring appeal. In 2016 the residents of Gose, in Nara, set a world record for the longest nagashi somen slide, building a working noodle chute that was 3, 317 meters long!
Though still a relatively recent advent in Japanese culinary culture, nagashi somen has managed to quickly establish itself as a beloved tradition. Combining fresh, cool water with delicious hand-pulled noodles, nagashi somen will surely continue to endure as a fun summer treat for generations to come.