Photo/IllutrationThe approach to the Kotohira-gu shrine in Kotohira, Kagawa Prefecture, is lined with udon restaurants. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

While visiting the town of Kotohira, Kagawa Prefecture, home of the well-known Kotohira-gu shrine, I came across a service called “Udon Taxi.”

As the name suggests, the cabs take customers to any number of the town’s udon (soup noodle) restaurants they wish to try out. The service is operated by Kotohira Bus Co. and receives about 300 ride requests a year.

The town has more udon eateries than convenience stores, or so it would look to any visitor. And every establishment has a high customer turnover rate.

Kagawa Prefecture is famed for its Sanuki udon.

“For residents of this prefecture, lunch means udon, in principle,” said Jun Tada, 38, the driver who took me around.

Like her, all Udon Taxi drivers are Kotohira Bus employees who have passed the company’s written and on-the-road tests and also mastered the art of hand-kneading noodles.

A surprise awaited me at the eatery Tada took me to: Self-service, based on an honor system, was the rule.

I was to pick up a bowl, swish my noodles in hot water and drain them, and then pour the broth over them. And after thoroughly enjoying my dish--160 yen per serving--I went to the checkout counter to pay, simply declaring what I’d consumed.

“This system can be confusing not only to foreign visitors but to Japanese as well,” Tada noted.

According to “Sanuki Udon no Shinso wo Motomete” (In search of the truth of Sanuki udon), published last year by a local flour mill business, udon merchants are depicted in a picture of Kotohira-gu’s festival that dates back to the early Edo Period (1603-1867).

The shrine, affectionately called Konpira-san, rivaled the Ise Jingu shrine in Mie Prefecture in popularity among pilgrims. The town was overrun by hordes of visitors, and roadside udon eateries were born.

Kotohira has remained one of the top tourist attractions on the island of Shikoku, but the number of tourists has dropped to about half of what it was at the end of the Showa Era (1926-1989).

Still, one survey showed that a whopping 80 percent of visitors to the prefecture ate udon, visiting an average of 1.77 udon establishments during their stay.

The Udon Taxi service was born 16 years ago to enable tourists to enjoy the local specialty to their heart’s content, undeterred by the town’s limited conventional transportation network.

Similar cab services that take visitors around tourist attractions and stores selling local specialties are a growing trend around the nation today.

Last year saw the establishment of an organization made up of 13 such taxi services in various parts of Japan, with the aim of sharing viable business ideas through exchanges.

The city of Hakodate, Hokkaido, is known for its “shio ramen” (ramen in salt-based broth), while “kasutera” (eggy sponge cake) is Nagasaki’s traditional specialty.

The growth of such taxi services seems to promise a bright future for Japan’s local tourist attractions.

--The Asahi Shimbun, July 13

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.