If anyone had told the gal she would enjoy stomping on dough while dance music played and those around shook tambourines, she would have been surprised. First the setting – and no, not a luxury hotel but above Nakano Udon shop in Kagawa, Japan. Go through the shop and up wooden stairs to Nakano Udon School there Mama-san held court. She speaks not a word of English but who cares. Students drop off their bags and wash their hands, at a row of basins that are a reminder of primary school. Sit at any of the places down either side of 20-ft white tables, about a yard wide. Each place has an apron, and a folded pink towel, for drying hands after the wash.
To make udon noodles you pour salt water into white flour, mix, and then knead and knead until it becomes a ball. Put that ball into a plastic bag, put bag on a straw mat on the floor, turn on the music and dance. Stomp and stomp, and when you are exhausted, so is the dough, so let it prove for one to two hours. This is actually just time for you to rush up the steps that start more or less outside the School. There are 750 stone steps, quite steep and uneven, and they take you all the way up Mount Zozu to Kompirasan, the main Kompira shrine in Japan. Stunning views, and at the shrine you will undoubtedly see proud parents bringing new babies to be blessed.
Then nip back down to the School, take out proven dough and roll it, roll it, using the rolling pin that, with a sharp knife, rests in each drawer beneath each student’s place. Roll it out, long and smooth, and then flip it with your fingers into folds, and cut across with your knife. Somehow then flip the resulting threads over your rolling pin, and flip the whole into a waiting lacquer bowl. At this point the noodles are taken away to be cooked and you, and your fellow Silver Discoverer passengers enjoying yet another of the enlightened activities that this expedition ship offers, climb up more floors to the Nakano Udon Restaurant. Long tables seating eight run the whole length of a pretty long room, and each table has a gas-lit burner with a pot of boiling water on it.
Each place has a black lacquer bento box with a disposable liner that is cleverly printed to look as if there are individual ceramic bowls, for tempura, condiments, rice and egg, dessert and so on (each ‘ceramic bowl’ has a different pattern). Our noodles are put in the water for final heating up: noodles are then portioned, with a wooden back-scratcher, into individual ceramic bowls and you pour miso soup over. We have learned so much – question, does any luxury hotel teach udon making? – and it has all been such fun. And Mama-san gives everyone a certificate, wrapped around a rolling pin, after which we head for a tour of Kanamaruza Theatre, the oldest working Kabuki playhouse in Japan.