The Soba Road
In Japan’s snow country, a journey to the heart of rustic culinary tradition
The soba noodles glisten in a long wooden box, and the scents of fresh buckwheat and cedar fill your nose. Dip some of these thick, brown strands in tare sauce and s-l-l-u-r-r-p – they may very well be the chewiest noodles you have ever tasted.
Soba and herring are the only things to be found on the menu of Araki Soba – a farmhouse covered in reed thatching, nestled in the “snow country” hinterlands of north-eastern Yamagata Prefecture. But people journey from all over Japan for a taste of the buckwheat noodles served in a village that could be the definition of middle-of-nowhere.
“People call us stubborn,” says Matazo Ashino, the 84-year-old patriarch who tends to his iron kettle suspended over an irori hearth, a pit laid into tatami straw matting. “I don’t know what they’re talking about – we’re just getting on with things the way we’ve always done.” Araki Soba, soon to mark a century in business, is the highlight of a culinary pilgrimage known as “the soba road”, which winds round the Mogami-gawa, a mighty river celebrated in verse by the 17th-century haiku poet Matsuo Basho. It’s a journey through landscapes of stark beauty with snowy mountains, cedar forests, sleepy villages and hayabusa falcons circling in the sky. Soba may be a fashionable superfood in places like Paris and New York (a healthy way to enjoy carb satisfaction without carb guilt), but come here for the rustic real deal – without spending a fortune.
The journey is officially called The Soba Road of the Three Perilous Passes of the Mogami-gawa. The road’s 12 soba shops hug three rapid river bends that were the terror of boat-traders during the Edo Period (1603-1868), when the Mogami-gawa was a major transport route. Isolation is one of the reasons for the astonishing variety of soba styles found in an area of less than 80 square miles. On the soba road, food pilgrims move from village-to-village, shop-to-shop to sample the unique character of soba in each spot – an endless source of debate, scrutiny and happy gastronomic exploration. You may want to begin the journey at its remotest point in Ondori Soba, a wooden lodge in a mountain village with splendid views of snow-covered peaks. Ondori serves two types of soba, side-by-side in the same wooden box. One is pale and slender, delicate from using flour of husked buckwheat grains. The other is dark and chunky, the rustic “inaka” (or countryside) soba for which the region is famous.
Kazuyuki Sato, Ondori’s soba master, says the secret of his soba is water from the natural mountain spring up the road. “Soba has nothing superfluous,” he says with a modest laugh. “It’s about buckwheat and water. If those two things are good, then the soba will be good. We’re blessed here – it’s not about my effort at all.”
Next pay a visit at Aikamo Kaikan, a traditional inn whose specialty is soba dipped in a simmering duck soup. The key is the dashi broth made from duck fat that forms the basis of the broth. Succulent morsels of duck float in this fragrant bath with scallions and wild mountain greens. Dip the cold inaka soba in the heart-warming soup and slurp it up, capturing the rich harmony of freshly-made noodles and juicy duck meat. Before your meal at Aikamo Kaikan, a 300-year-old structure on the edge of cedar woods, consider a dip in the inn’s steamy hot-spring bath.
There are many other variations on the soba road. In fact, the soba at Kurenai-en is not even noodles, but rather cake. The shop’s soba-gaki, a round cooked soba dough, is served with a selection of seasonal vegetables and local dishes. Hayabusa, overlooking the Mogami-gawa (in view of one of its “perilous passes”), serves a soba whose grains are buried in snow during the winter months – which brings out the soba’s sweetness when served in spring.
For a more hands-on experience, learn the art of soba-making from a master at Noson Densho no Ie – and eat what you have made for lunch. But the one shop on the road not to miss is Araki Soba. Its chewy noodles are unforgettable. And it even somehow made it onto France’s “La Liste” of the world’s 1,000 best restaurants (ranking 319) – an honour roll endorsed by the French Foreign Ministry.