Visualize if you will, a spry young man in his work kimono, made of an easy to clean light fabric, walking down the dirt-paved roads of the old capital Kyōto to the clickety-clackety of hundreds of Japanese sandal-wearing passers-by as they go about their daily business, smiling and nodding while the deciduous trees rain orange and red fires of leaves all around. With a wave of the hand, a quick konnichiwa to his neighbors, and a right turn past the entrance curtains our man enters his shop. A small storefront with a tiny garden pond to the left and a backroom for kneading, mixing and baking makes up the modest shop, all separated by the thinnest of rice-paper sliding doors, yet somehow keeping the cool autumn breeze from disturbing the still sun-dappled air of the fine-milled flours and powdered sugars floating like benevolent ancestral ghosts around the confectionery. The year is 1465 in Nakagyo-ward, just south of the grounds of the Emperor’s palace, and you have entered Honke Owariya, which although new, has quickly become one of the favored confectionery shops of the imperial family. Sadly the Ōnin War, which will begin in just two short years and will last ten, destroys most of the city, scatters the population, and renders the emperor powerless: excellent timing soba-monger.
One day an influential member of the emperor’s entourage comes calling telling you His Highness really loves simple blue-collar fare, like Soba and should you decide to take advantage of the large natural water table upon which the city lies (thanks to its beneficial situation in the Yamashiro basin of the Tanba Highlands) to extend your talented hand into making the best dashi soup stock around, your legacy might still be around in 2012. Thankfully that or something like that is exactly what happened, which is why we still have Owariya, arguably the oldest restaurant in Kyōto- which would likely make it the oldest in Japan- 546 years later.
When you are invited by the family to stay at the restaurant itself, and they casually drop that it was established in 1465, your mind begins to go numb. These kinds of numbers don’t mean anything to Americans. 544 years of uninterrupted service means that they had already been serving soba for more than 300 years by the time the thirteen British colonies got off their lazy bottoms and decided to unify into the U.S.A. The soup I was slurping was older than my own country’s constitution, and much more delicious, which made me wonder, 1) just exactly who are these soba-mongers? and 2) what’s the difference between their product and the stuff you buy at the store?
That first talented young patisserie chef who came from Nagoya along with some members of the imperial family, worked hard to turn the shop from strictly sweets to the soba du jour. Generally considered an everyman’s dish, fit for laymen as well as for a king, the initial proprietor Denzaemon (でんざえもん)–as has been named every master behind the Owariya (尾張屋) symbol–has passed down the recipe alongside the name from father to son since the end of the Muromachi and into the Edo period, until today. While the building itself has changed over that time, the shop has been located on the same soil–despite war, fire, and other misfortunes which prevailed upon a Japan still searching for its national identity during the violence of the 15-19th centuries–since 1465. Only open for lunch, the current establishment, a multi-leveled wooden building which can seat over 50 guests comfortably, located down a sleepy side-street near the Karasuma-Oike subway station, has been in use since the early part of last century, the 1920s or 30s.
Barring another civil war, a massive fire, an earthquake of great magnitude, a genealogical dry spell or any other potential disaster already having occurred in the storied history of Kyōto (Mothra’s Revenge perhaps?), the current incarnation could be around for another five hundred years.
But what exactly is soba? According to Owariya, soba “are thin grey noodles made from sobako, or buckwheat flour.” Depending on which area of Japan you live, they range in percentages of purity from 100% juu-wari inaka-soba found in the rich buckwheat fields of Nagano to mixtures containing various wild mountain yams, green tea and even mugwort. It ranges from the traditional kaiseki-esque 500 + year-old stuff of Honke Owariya all the way to small shacks serving bowls of the stuff as fast, cheap food for businessmen who don’t have five minutes to sit. Despite sounding a bit boring, soba has a flashy side: sushi. Or more properly pronounced: Sobazushi.
How, you ask, is it so highly favored among the blue bloods, the proletariat and, of course, the wayward traveler? Despite the ancient mama-san trying to hurry you up to free space for the next customer in line, the important thing is to go slow. In order to be able to appreciate the finer subtleties amidst a symphony of salaryman slurps, you have got to eat it often and eat a lot of it. Which shouldn’t prove a problem as according to a new study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition eating whole grains, such as buckwheat, has been linked to protection against atherosclerosis, ischemic stroke, diabetes, insulin resistance, obesity, and premature death. Another benefit would be eating the 100% juu-wari soba for people with wheat allergies (it’s a fruit seed, which does not contain protein glutens).
With seasonal specialties like the roasted duck, where the crispy skin reminds one of the falling leaves crunched underfoot walking in the chill dusk evening toward your lady friend’s house, there is reason for hedonistic celebration. The centimeter thick layer of beautifully textured fat redolent like the bearskin rug before the hearth of the roaring fire which throws flame light on the open bottle of vintage old world Pinot noir said lady friend is holding. Finally past the skin and beneath the fat comes the tender flesh, reminiscent of the autumnal elements, of the mingling of fire and air, and as you bite down and union is achieved, you taste the fine seiro fish stock now with a hint of oaky barbecue added as ballast and realizing that this meal too, perfectly balanced as it is by the light buckwheat noodles awash in their own sobayu, like others, will pass, you slow down.
Taking things slowly at the beginning of the year is important. Yet done’t mean we should take their presentation for granted. Soba, like mochi, is a traditional food for New year’s day in Japan. But that doesn’t mean you have to eat it in the traditional–dare I say it, boring–manner. Get crazy. Yes, go ahead and take an example from American culture and deep-fry your healthy buckwheat noodles. It’s not as if the Japanese have always been staunch traditionalists, despite claims to the contrary. They haven’t always celebrated their New Year on the 1st of January. No, that estimable tradition hailing from the Gregorian west began under Emperor Meiji’s modernization rampage in the late 19th century. The original New Year is based on–as with many other Asian cultures–the Chinese Lunar Calendar and generally falls on the second new moon after Winter Solstice, marking the beginning of spring, and signifying links with the Middle East’s Nowruz and Carnival (Mardi Gras) in the west.
Whatever your culture, your religion, your food and drink, whenever the new year comes where you are from, it goes without saying that your firsts are very important. In Japan the hatsuhinode: first sunrise of the year, hatsumōde: first trip to a shrine or temple, waraizome: first laugh, hatsuyume: first dream, and especially hatsuzushi: first sushi of the year. Why not head to Honke Owariya for you first lunch eating out of the new year and ask for the Sobazushi (you may have to specify deep-fried). It may be your first time trying it, but you won’t be sorry. Especially if you get the chilled bottle of Momo no Shizuku (Peach Dewdrops). May all your firsts parallel your dreams of laughing at the sunrise from the shrine steps. Taking your time now, you look out the window and watch the bundled people passing and the wind whipping the snow to the edges of your vision. Things inevitably change, but thankfully some things do not.