Can traditions be kickstarted with just a clever marketing campaign? Well, Kentucky Fried Chicken successfully managed to get the Japanese to associate Christmas with fried chicken, so there is a precedent. A campaign to get the nation to eat udon (thick wheat flour noodles) over the New Years’ holidays is now in its third year and, according to J-Cast, it’s experiencing modest success.
Udon manufacturers in Kagawa Prefecture banded together in 2008 to form Sanuki Udon Promotion Committee. To combat declining udon sales, the committee launched the “Toshi Ake Udon” (start the New Year with udon) campaign to introduce the concept of eating a bowl of noodles on or after New Year’s day. Traditionally Japanese eat toshikoshi soba (end-of-year thin noodles) before New Year’s day (eating the long thin noodles is a way to promote a long healthy life), so the idea is to to get Japanese eating udon in the same way once the new year has begun. The udon is to be consumed with a celebratory red topping such as red kamaboko (slices of steamed fish paste), shrimp or ume boshi (dried plum).
Central to the campaign is a round seal that is displayed on products endorsed by the committee. Sanuki Udon Promotion Committee have announced that the number of companies applying to use their seal this year has increased. In November 2010, 391 companies in Japan had applied: an increase of 66 companies since January 2010. The number of restaurants serving toshi ake udon in Kagawa Prefecture has also increased: from 49 to 66 in the space of a year.
The reason why the committee was formed in Kagawa Prefecture is because Sanuki in Kagawa is known for its delicious noodles. The area even enjoyed something of a tourism boom earlier in the decade when a guide to the region’s noodle stores was published, and a movie, unimaginatively called “Udon,” was even made about the craze and even Haruki Murakami namechecked the town of Takamatsu in Kagawa, where his main character in “Kafka on the Shore” goes and enjoys a bowl of Sanuki udon.
So far a couple of major brands have launched products displaying the seal. Instant-noodle company Nissin launched its limited edition Donbei Toshi Ake Udon last year. It contains ume boshi, kamaboko and a fortune, which can be found at the bottom of the bowl. Last year the product sold out quickly and this year was reintroduced on Dec. 20. Udon chain store Hanamaru Udon has been selling toshi ake udon for three years running, each year with different ingredients. This year’s product is Medetai (congratulations) Toshi Ake Udon, which contains slices of seabream sashimi (the tai in medetai is the kanji for sea bream), served atop udon in a dashi broth. Available until Jan. 10, it costs ¥580. If you’re up for taking up a new tradition, pop by and fill up.