Noodles in Japan are like bread in Europe; they’re part of almost every meal and come in numerous varieties and styles. They can be served hot or cold and can be made to have a range of textures. Knowing a little about the different types of noodles will mean you’ll always be able to find a tasty, filling and (usually) cheap meal.
You are probably already familiar with ramen as this type of noodle dish is often available in Japanese restaurants the UK. The dish consists of wheat noodles (usually made with egg as well) in a thin soup with meat, fish or vegetable toppings. The varieties are almost endless, and each region of Japan has its own local recipe. Common toppings include barbecued pork, boiled eggs, chicken, bamboo shoots, spring onions and seaweed. Ramen is usually served in specialist restaurants (ramen-ya) that only produce ramen soup along with a few side dishes. Ramen-ya are a great choice if you are on a budget as a filling meal can easily be had for less than Y1000.
Soba noodles are usually thin, stringy noodles made from buckwheat. Soba is usually served cold in summer and hot in winter. Cold soba dishes consist of a wicker tray of cooked noodles which have been cooled, a dipping sauce and sometimes toppings such as dried seaweed or grated daikon radish. (In the picture you can see cold noodles, dipping sauce, pickles, tempura, tofu and a salad).
Hot soba is similar to ramen in that it comes in hot broth with toppings. However the main difference is that ramen noodles are made with wheat instead of buckwheat. Cold soba is considered the best way to appreciate the taste and texture of handmade soba noodles, as hot soup dishes will overcook the noodles.
Yakisoba is in fact ramen (wheat) noodles that have been boiled and then fried along with meat, vegetables and a sauce for seasoning.
Udon is a wheat noodle, which is shaped in to thick strings. Udon is often treated similarly to soba, and is also served chilled in summer and hot in winter. Expect to find udon noodles in hot broths with toppings, or served chilled with dipping sauce.
Somen are similar to udon in recipe and serving, but are shaped in to very thin noodles (usually around 1mm). In summer you might find restaurants serving nagashi somen. This dish consists of somen noodles washed down a bamboo flume with iced water; diners have to fish out the noodles with chopsticks as the water flows past their table.
Cup Noodles is an instant ramen style dish, with instant noodles, powdered broth and dried toppings. It comes in several flavours and just requires the addition of hot water. This sounds dangerously like a Pot Noodle, but the quality of Cup Noodles and similar brands in Japan is much better than the UK equivalent. Cup Noodles can be bought in every convenience store, and often there will be hot water available for you to make up the instant noodles there and then. There are even Cup Noodle vending machines! If you want to know more about Cup Noodles, see our page about the Cup Noodle museum in Yokohama.