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Called men (麺) in Japanese, noodles are a staple of Japanese cuisine. They are often seen as convenient food and the many types of Japanese noodles are enjoyed chilled with dipping sauces, in soups, stir-fried or in salads. This article will guide you through every type of Japanese noodle you may encounter – bear in mind though, that there are countless regional varieties to each type of noodle!
Everyone loves ramen (ラーメン), perhaps the most famous Japanese noodle. The thin and often curly or wavy wheat-based noodle is a little yellow in colour. The dough is made out of wheat flour, salt, water, and kansui, or a form of alkaline water. It is allowed to rise before it is rolled out into noodles. The noodles are thought to originate from China and are sometimes also called chuka soba (中華そば), meaning “Chinese soba.”
Often ramen comes with a soup made from chicken or pork stock, kombu 昆布 (kelp), katsuobushi 鰹節 (dried sliced bonito), niboshi 煮干 (dried baby sardines), shiitake 椎茸 mushrooms, and onions.
Tonkotsusoup is usually cloudy white coloured and is a thick broth made from pork bones.
Shoyuramen is a basic soup with clear brown broth, made with some type of stock and plenty of soy sauce. Menma, or marinated bamboo shoots are common for toppings, as is green onions, kamaboko 蒲鉾 (a type of cured surimi, or dried fish paste), boiled eggs, and bean sprouts.
Shioramen is a little lighter in colour, a yellowish broth made with salt and broth. The flavor is lighter as well and the soup generally uses straight noodles rather than curly ones.
Misoramen is also popular, especially famous in Hokkaido. It may use butter and corn, cabbage, sesame seeds, and garlic.
Udon (うどん) noodles are the thickest type of Japanese noodle. The white, wheat-based noodles are often enjoyed chilled and dipped in sauce, or served in a broth soup. In their simplest form, you can eat the noodles with thinly sliced green onions and perhaps a slice of kamaboko.
Kitsune udon, or “fox udon,” is topped with sweetened aburaage 油揚げ (deep-fried slices of tofu). Tanuki udon, or “raccoon udon,” is topped with tempura batter flakes. Tempura udon is topped with tempura, or sometimes kakiage かき揚げ (vegetable and seafood tempura). Chikara udon, or “stamina udon”, is topped with mochi. Stamina udon usually is topped with meat, egg, and vegetables.
Yakiudon 焼きうどん is stir-fried udon in a soy sauce based sauce, prepared similarly to yakisoba 焼きそば.
Udon is also popular for use in various nabe 鍋 dishes. In Nagoya, the noodles are simmered in miso soup for miso-nikomi udon.
Hōtō udon is popular in Yamanashi. It is the thickest of them all and usually cooked in a thick miso soup with many vegetables.
Buckwheat noodles, called soba (蕎麦), are usually made with a mixture of buckwheat and wheat flour. If you’re celiac, be sure to look for 100% buckwheat noodles, which are one of the only types of Japanese noodle you may be able to eat.
Many soba variations are similar to udon ranging from chilled to served in a soup. Zarusoba ざる蕎麦 is chilled and served on a bamboo tray with little bits of nori seaweed and green onions, then dipped in tsuyu つゆ (dipping sauce).
After eating the noodles, many people enjoy drinking the sobayu (蕎麦湯), or the water the soba was cooked in, mixed with the leftover tsuyu.
Popular cold soba toppings include tororo 薯蕷, a puree of yamaimo and grated daikon. Tempura is popular for warm soba, as is sansai (山菜), or “mountain vegetables,” or duck.
Soba is traditionally eaten on New Year’s Eve in Japan, a tradition that is practiced to this day in most of Japan. Called toshikoshisoba (年越しそば), there are many meanings behind the practice, such as prayers for a long life.
Although it contains the word soba, yakisoba is actually stir-fried wheat flour noodles, not buckwheat. The noodles are more similar to ramen noodles, and they are usually prepared with small pieces of por and vegetables such as cabbage, onions or carrots. The dish is flavoured with yakisoba sauce, salt and pepper. It is also topped with aonori 青のり(green seaweed powder), beni shoga 紅しょうが (red picked ginger), katsuobushi and mayonnaise. Yakisoba is a staple street food often seen at matsuri 祭り (festivals) and yatai 屋台 (food stall) in Japan.
Sōmen (素麺) are very thin white wheat flour noodles, usually served cold. Popular especially in the summertime, sometimes the noodles are served in warm soup in the winter, called nyumen 煮麺.
Usually it is served in a very simple style, chilled in ice after cooking and dipped in tsuyu, usually a katsuobushi-based sauce with some onion, ginger or myoga ミョウガ (Japanese ginger).
A fun summertime way to serve sōmen is nagashi-sōmen, or flowing sōmen. The noodles are placed in long bamboo flumes. Diners “catch” the noodles as the sōmen pass by, dipping in their tsuyu and feasting.
A little thicker than sōmen and thinner than udon, hiyamugi (冷麦) noodles are similar to both and somewhere in between the two in size. It is served in a similar manner as sōmen or udon. Sometimes they are not only white but mixed with pink or green colored noodles.
Hiyamugi are wheat noodles between 1.3 millimetre and 1.7 millimetre in diameter. Anything thicker is udon and anything thinner is sōmen.
Konnyaku “noodles,” or shirataki (白滝)has risen in popularity outside of Japan recently as a weight-loss food because of its lack of calories. The thin, translucent noodles are made from konjac yam and are full of dietary fibre while low in carbohydrates and calories. It doesn’t have much flavour on its own, so it’s very versatile in cooking.
Although the shirataki noodles can be prepared in similar ways as other noodles, traditionally they are most commonly used in sukiyaki すき焼き, nikujyaga 肉じゃが,and other stewed dishes.
Glass noodles made of potato starch are called harusame (春雨) in Japan. Similar to Chinese glass noodles, harusame is used commonly in salads or in hot pot dishes. They are also often used to make Japanese adaptations of Chinese and Korean dishes and is the most commonly-found type of glass noodles in Japan.
What’s your favorite Japanese noodle?
If you want to try make your own noodles, check out our Spring in Japan course and learn how to make delicious noodles, while also getting to experience Japanese culture with people from all over the world.