It’s funny the things we see on travel blogs that capture our imagination and make us want to visit a place. When our friend L’Ell lived in Japan, she kept a fantastic blog that detailed her many adventures in “the land of the rising fun” (as we referred to it). She saw and did so many incredible things, but one completely random thing stuck in my mind as the thing that I *had* to do when we made it to Japan. That thing was nagashi somen.
As we have already detailed in our posts, it gets incredibly hot in Japan in the summer. In order to deal with this, it is very common to dine beside the river in Kyoto as the rushing water acts as nature’s air conditioner. Even more popular are the restaurants located in Kibune, a small town located on the outskirts of Kyoto, which offer a particularly ingenious twist on dining al fresco: many of the restaurants here actually have constructed platforms so that diners can eat directly above the river and benefit from the flowing water beneath them. Not only is it incredibly beautiful, but it’s effective too, as temperatures on the platform can be 5ºC cooler in the summer! This platform dining in Kibune is actually fairly unique (and slightly naughty) as apparently it is against the law in Japan to build on top of the river, so if this is the kind of outdoor eating experience you want to have, this is one of the few places in the entire country where you can do so. Needless to say, this is something we were willing to not just make the trip for, but actually dedicated an entire day to!
Getting to Kibune is fairly simple: just ride the Keihan subway line to Demachi-Yanagi station and transfer to the Eizan train line and ride all the way to Kibune-guchi. The trip takes about 30 minutes, and when you get off the train in Kibune, you feel as though you are in a whole new world. Gone is the concrete and all signs of city life. Instead, you alight from the train to find a towering cedar forest ascending to the heavens on one side of you and the river on the other. The difference in temperature is already noticeable and the air has a perceptible crisp note to it.
As you walk from the station toward the main strip in Kibune, you will find that there are plenty of river restaurants to sate your hunger. They all were extraordinarily lovely and seemed to offer exceptionally peaceful dining, however, we were on a mission for the aforementioned nagashi somen. Literally translated as “flowing noodles”, the dish involves bundles of soba being floated through bamboo tubes which must be swiftly plucked out with chopsticks by eager diners. Yes, this novelty dish is truly the reason we made the trip to Kibune, and only one restaurant, called Hirobun, serves them.
Although the Lonely Planet claims that the walk from the train station to Hirobun only takes 20 minutes, the weather was cool enough that we were able to really motor (while still enjoying the delightful surroundings) and it still took us about 35 minutes to get there. This combined with the filthy lies they wrote about the Kamakura hike (yes, I am still holding a grudge) made it clear to us that obviously the Lonely Planet is not to be trusted when time estimates are involved! However, like I said, the forest around us was exceedingly pretty and as buildings began to crop up, they too were gorgeous in that achingly Japanese kind of way, so it was not an unpleasant walk and eventually did find ourselves at Hirobun’s piece of the river.
Being the only nagashi somen gig in town, you can imagine that Hirobun is pretty popular, and even at 2 pm on a weekday, the joint was jumping. We checked in and were given a number and told that the wait would be 60 – 90 minutes. We hoped that we had simply misunderstood, but no, the wait really was that long. Only 4 dining parties can enjoy nagashi somen at a time, each session lasting about 15 – 20 minutes, and despite the odd dining hour, there were about 20 groups ahead of us. Not to worry, we had nothing about time, and the waiting area was a lower platform situated over the river. We contented ourselves to sit and be soothed by the rushing water, even splashing our feet in the river until someone came over and said something to us… it was all in Japanese so it was just guesswork on our part, but I am pretty sure that while dangling your feet off the platform is ok, putting them in the water was not. Sometimes the Japanese are such party poopers.
We patiently waited our turn, rehearsing over and over what our number would sound like when called in Japanese… the practice paid off as we finally heard our magical number and, with tummies grumbling, approached the nagashi somen platform and took our places at the bamboo tube. Alongside our chopsticks was a bowl of dipping sauce (in which to dunk our somen after catching it) and a bowl with some matcha-dusted mochi with which to end our meal. We barely had time to “assume the position” when with a loud burst, a bundle of somen came shooting out the tube!
The noodles are quite slippery and the current quite strong, so you need to be fairly nimble in your chopstick technique. Thankfully the preceding weeks in Japan had made us ohashi experts, and we managed to juggle videoing the process with snatching out the noodles, only losing one or two to the current. The atmosphere on the platform was cool and peaceful as we slurped happily away at our noodles, and the only sad point in the meal was when a bundle of pink, shiso flavored noodles came bursting forth, signaling the end to our session. The time had seemed interminable while waiting, but we were swept away by the process and felt like we had just sat down!
At 1200Y (~$15USD) apiece, our nagashi somen experiment was a bit pricey but one we were happy we got to undertake. Although we felt that the amount of somen we actually were given to eat was a bit miserly given the price point, this was certainly one those instances where you are paying for the experience as well as the atmosphere. We greatly enjoyed our time in Kibune and would happily return, though we would likely try one of the various other platform river restaurants if we did.
There is apparently a scenic hike between Kibune and a neighboring mountain onsen town called Kurama, but we weren’t going to undo all the calming and cooling work the river had wrought! I think it’s fair to say that we have engaged in more than our fair share of summer-weather hikes in Japan, and so we instead opted to leisurely stroll back to the train station and head back to the sweltering streets of Kyoto in search of even more delicious meals.