The first time I visited Japan, I went in search of the perfect bowl of udon.
For those not familiar with this fine staple of Japanese cuisine, it is a hot noodle soup made with dashi, mirin and soy sauce and often topped with scallions and tempura. There is nothing better than a steaming bowl of these savoury noodles on a cold winter's day.
I first encountered udon as a young teenager when my father, a Japanese-Canadian, rediscovered his roots and started making traditional dishes. First it was sushi, then it was udon. There was always an undercurrent of expectation and suspense as we sat down to one of our father's meals. Success was never guaranteed.
After my father passed away, I travelled to Japan to trace my family's roots. My grandfather had moved to British Columbia as a young fisherman and had stayed.
My father had never returned to Japan so, embarking on a pilgrimage of sorts, I set out (with my younger brothers) to find the small village of Shimosato in southern Wakayama prefecture from whence the Madokoro clan came. We thought it would be particularly fitting if we could honour our Dad by having a bowl of his favourite dish on terra familiaris.
Our visit to the village was a strange one. We spent five hours on a train from Kyoto and then emerged into a rainy, bitterly cold January day. Through a variety of family networks, we had arranged to meet our third cousin seven times removed (or something equally distant), but as we looked out on the deserted village, there was no welcoming committee to be found.
Eventually, an elderly gentleman emerged from the downpour and took us to his home for tea and pleasantries. Communication was almost impossible. Our fractured Japanese was no match for his heavy dialect.
Looking at family albums, we managed to confirm that we were indeed related and this seemed to provide a key of sorts: We braved the weather to visit the local cemetery where we were shown the family shrine. It was touching, if bewildering.
Shimosato was so small that there was no possibility of accommodation (and we weren't conversant enough to impose on our new-found relatives), so we said our farewells and continued on to Kushimoto, where we spent the night listening to the sound of huge waves crashing in off the Pacific Ocean.
Our spiritual quest continued the next day as we spent the morning exploring the beach for small rocks. Wanting to make a physical connection with the land of our forefathers, we each collected rocks to bring home. It was another tribute of sorts: one of our father's favourite stories involved a drive across Canada with a mad hippie who collected rocks and boulders at every river they passed (apparently the car's shocks were in rough shape by the time they hit Ontario).
But the most important goal of our trip had yet to be achieved: We had failed to eat udon in our family's native village so we decided that having it somewhere in the prefecture would have to do. The most popular destinations on the coast are the amazing rock formations and the huge beaches and natural hot springs near Shirahama so we decided to check out the scene and get ourselves some udon while we were at it.
The rocks, called Thousand Tatami Mat Point and Three-Step Cliff, in honour of the amazing sedimentary patterns, are raw and majestic: reminiscent of the landscapes around Alberta's Badlands. In February, they are also home to some of the most bitterly cold winds and temperatures in Japan so we were primed for hot soup after a few hours of trekking around the rocks. Bones chilled, and stomachs growling, we chose a promising-looking restaurant on the waterfront ( udon was prominently advertised in the large window) and prepared to honour traditions from near and far.
When the steam cleared, we found ourselves staring into bowls with large, worm-like noodles floating around. These were not the noodles of our father's udon: wheaty and thin, vermicelli-like. I looked at the menu again, consulted my Japanese-English dictionary and realized that we had spent years living a lie. What our father had fed us was not udon but soba. In Japan, dishes are named after the noodles they are made with and soba is a thin noodle made of buckwheat flour. My Dad, it turned out, had been a soba specialist, not an udon maker. The things you learn when you travel to your roots.
Our family folklore has changed since that trip. My brothers and I can now speak of the village where our grandfather was born and picture the rain-drenched rice fields and dripping blue and grey roof tiles. We can also speak of the day that we walked on a thousand tatami mats. And, of course, we talk about the times our dad made udon that was really soba and how it is still the best udon that we have ever had.
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