Soba, so good

What food will foreign athletes and spectators in Nagano get if they ask for the local specialty? Buckwheat noodles!

By Koji Yoshii
February 6, 1998 1:00AM (UTC)
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You may come across soba restaurants everywhere in Japan, but Nagano, where the Olympic Games will be held beginning next week, is believed to be the area where soba originated.

There are three kinds of noodles in Japan: ramen (thin Chinese noodles), udon (thick white noodles) and soba (buckwheat noodles). Ramen is popular throughout the world, and noodles similar to udon can also be found in China. But soba is a noodle indigenous to Japan.


While ramen, udon and spaghetti are made of wheat, soba is made differently. It's made from powder extracted from the seeds of a plant called soba, which originally meant buckwheat itself.

Soba buckwheat normally grows in barren soil. The Nagano area is mountainous and not suitable for rice farming, but soba has been produced plentifully there.


Interestingly enough, America has indirectly contributed to the preservation of the Japanese soba tradition. The Japanese government has been trying to reduce the domestic production of rice -- partly because America wants to sell rice to Japan. This policy of the U.S. government is a threat to Japanese farmers, for American rice is very low-priced, and there has been much debate as to whether Japan should import cheap American rice or protect the domestic rice producers. But because of the reduction of rice production encouraged by the Japanese government, farmers have begun to convert their rice fields into soba fields.

Japanese businessmen, particularly those middle-aged or older, love to have soba noodles for lunch. It is easy to digest and not heavy, and does not take time to eat up. The old American and European joke is that Japanese businessmen spend no more than five minutes for lunch because they eat so efficiently, and this is the chief reason for Japan's remarkable economic growth.

You order soba and it is brought to you, and you really can eat it all in five minutes. I am greatly fond of soba, too. But I never eat it in such a short time. First I order beer and have a good drink, then I focus on zaru-soba, the representative dish among the variety of soba dishes. I take a minimum of one hour to finish.


There are about 50 soba restaurants in Nagano, and it is impossible
to judge which one is good from the exterior of the building. I would like to recommend here the highly reputed Imamura Kyuichi Soba.

Hiromichi Imamura, manager of the restaurant, is utterly weak in
foreign languages. When I asked him what he would do during the Olympics,
he said, scratching his head, "Oh, I am very concerned, indeed. I can only
hope to communicate in terms of feelings." And he continued, "When foreign
customers come, I will take them in front to our showcase and ask, 'This?


The stores in Chuou-dori (the main street of Nagano) are
conducting the "one store-one country campaign." Each store is appointed
to support a country and flies its national flag in the front, with the
intention of cheering up the athletes from there. Imamura's restaurant is
supporting Russia. Imamura is now practicing the Russian for "this."

Nagano is one of the eminent tourist cities in Japan, and a great
number of foreign tourists visit there. According to Imamura,
tourists from abroad coming to soba restaurants generally seem to know
something of the Japanese ways of eating, including how to use Japanese hashi, or chopsticks.


Some foreign tourists, however, request a fork and eat soba like spaghetti, so Imamura gets forks ready, too. You can't prepare for everything, though: Zaru-soba is served on a sort of small
bamboo screen, similar to a window blind made very tiny, and it is proper to pick the noodle up with the hashi, dip
it in a sauce provided in a ceramic cup, then bring it to the mouth. One foreign customer once poured the sauce on the bamboo screen, thereby turning his trousers into zaru-soba!

Zaru-soba becomes even more tasty if you add spice to the sauce.
Finely cut leek and wasabi (Japanese horseradish) are offered on a small
plate. You should add one more seasoning, which comes in a small canister
on the table: shichimi-togarashi. Its main ingredient is the same as
paprika, but there are six other kinds of pepper in it, which make for its
characteristic flavor. Just put a very small amount of it in the sauce.

In every soba restaurant in Nagano, the shichimi-togarashi is the
product of Yahataya-Isogoro. This is a company dating back 280 years and now run by Akira Muroga, the eighth in the line of
proprietors. The store is just in front of Zenkoji temple, the central spot
of tourism in Nagano. But the store itself was built only after the
Second World War; until then the business was done in a street stall inside
the precincts of Zenkoji temple.


Since the Edo Period (1603-1867), there has been a custom to go sightseeing under
the pretext of a pilgrimage to a Shinto shrine or a Buddhist temple, and quite a
few visitors have flocked to Zenkoji temple. Through the years many vendors have appeared to
sell souvenirs around the temple, and Yahataya-Isogoro was among them. Its
shichimi-togarashi sold so well that some vendors imitated it, but they
disappeared in the end. Yahataya-Isogoro holds the secret about the way of
roasting shishito (paprika), the main ingredient, and now it monopolizes the
share of shichimi-togarashi in the whole of Nagano prefecture.

Muroga is, like Imamura, indecisive about the Olympics. He is
not very confident, confessing, "I wonder how the foreign people will value
Japanese spice."

Since the Shinkansen super express train connecting Tokyo and Nagano
opened last autumn, customers -- and sales -- have increased
by 30 percent. People in
Nagano say, "Hosting the Olympic Games is something like receiving Kurofune
(the Black Ships that came from America in 1854 to break Japan's strict isolation
policy) in Nagano," implying a fear of great culture shock. They are
delighted and anxious at the same time.

I tentatively asked Muroga where he came by the peppers for
shichimi-togarashi. He said, "I suppose peppers taken in the local
district were used in the past, but nowadays only sansho comes from Nagano,
whereas the other peppers are imported from abroad. For example, our shishito
is cultivated in either China or India, where the Japanese seeds are sent.
This is the idea of the cultivation traders, as the labor costs are low
there, I imagine."


Now, what is the fundamental spirit of the Olympics? Participation
from all over the world. Then, it is already realized in a tiny
canister of shichimi-togarashi ! Yahataya-Isogoro's shichimi-togarashi will
no doubt be welcomed by overseas visitors.

(Translated by Nobuya Takahashi)

Koji Yoshii

Koji Yoshii is a staff writer for the weekly AERA magazine.

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