U-1 Grand Prix

On May 2, 2015, I visited the U-1 Grand Prix, a contest to determine the best udon shop in all of Japan. Visitors’ votes determine the ultimate winner of this contest that pits just about every kind of udon, from local favorites to new, unique creations, against one another.

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This marks the third U-1 Grand Prix.

I had the chance to sit down with Ms. Hayakawa, who heads the U-1 Grand Prix Steering Committee, to get her thoughts on the event.

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Ms. Hayakawa: “The first U-1 Grand Prix was held in Yoyogi Park as a food related side event to the Yosakoi Festival.

There are various types of udon made throughout Japan. While the majors, of course, are Sanuki, Inaniwa and Mizusawa, among others is something called Mimi Udon, which is udon noodles shaped like an ear.

I want to inform more people about this Mimi Udon. I want them to learn about the history and culture behind its ear shape, who came up with the idea, and how it’s seasoned.

We planned on holding the first U-1 Grand Prix as a one-off event, but it turns out that the shops with booths at the event benefited a great deal. Some said that after getting home their customer traffic had increased, while others said local news media outlets were doing stories about them, and still others had requests to open mini shops at service areas.

This led to storeowners wanting to continue the U-1 Grand Prix. After that, we decided to establish the event organizer as a corporation.

The second U-1 Grand Prix was held at Osaka’s Expo Commemoration Park. This time it was a standalone event all by itself, instead of being a part of another event.

The Osaka event attracted some 210,000 people over a five-day period. This confirmed to me that people love their udon.”

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Today’s event is filled with even more people than the one in Osaka.

Ms. Hayakawa: “The event in Osaka was widely covered by a mass of media outlets in the Kansai region. Yet, we didn’t get the nationwide coverage or buzz that we were looking for, so we decided to try again and hold the event in Tokyo. This is why we are here in Ariake for this year’s U-1 Grand Prix. Thanks to this location, today we have all of Japan’s major broadcast stations here to do stories.”

A website that shares what to do in Japan with foreign visitors even did a story on the event, so there should be some travelers here today.

Udon is widely accepted by people around the world because it’s made from wheat, so I hear there are foreign nationals here today to eat. There was even an udon flavored like familiar Italian carbonara.

A website that shares what to do in Japan with foreign visitors even did a story on the event, so there should be some travelers here today.

Udon is widely accepted by people around the world because it’s made from wheat, so I hear there are foreign nationals here today to eat. There was even an udon flavored like familiar Italian carbonara.

Ms. Hayakawa: “I hope to share udon with the rest of the world in the future as a traditional Japanese food. We are even thinking of holding a U-1 Grand Prix outside of Japan. In Japan we refer to wheat noodles as udon, but noodles made outside of Japan from the similar ingredients of wheat, salt and water need to be included in this event. The U-1 group hopes to expand the reach to consider all these noodles as udon.”

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I was able to try Goto Udon, which is a rarity for Tokyo.

There are various theories behind the birthplace of handmade udon. Some say it all started in Nara or Fukuoka. Others say Goto was the beginning. Goto Udon features camellia oil kneaded into the dough, which makes its silky smooth and quite delicious.

Ms. Hayakawa: “At this year’s event we donated part of the sales from last year to Suita City to benefit children battling intractable diseases. Also, we donated part of the proceeds to a sports related company. Udon is much easier to digest than ramen and udon can be eaten from a very young age. In the future, I hope to make the rounds at schools to appeal the benefits of serving udon to children. At the same time, I want to convey that udon is also a traditional Japanese food. While the noodles are important, the soup stock is just as critical. Recently, there has been a rise in the number of children who don’t know what soup stock tastes like. With junk food now prevalent in the world today, I hope to get people to rethink their diet through Japanese cuisine and provide dietary education where needed.”

You’ve really displayed your commitment to share Japanese culture through udon and to demonstrate the amazing nature of udon to the next generation through dietary education. Today, as Japanese people continue to lose their delicate sense of taste, we are contributing to this problem as Japanese nationals. Wannameshi members will definitely be at the next U-1 Grand Prix.