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Tag: Kyōto

Honke Owariya - Best Soba in Kyōto

Honke Owariya – Best Soba in Kyōto

The Soba War

Honke Owariya - Best Soba in Kyōto

A Slice of Seasonal Heaven – Roasted Duck (鴨せいろ)

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. He smiles and nods to his acquaintances 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 shoji 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 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: not exactly auspicious timing.

Maybe our man hides out until after the war, all the while perfecting his deliciously sweet an (餡) paste, the emperor’s favorite mochi (餅) and the traditional jellies of tokoro ten (ところ天). Maybe an influential member of the emperor’s cortege comes calling telling you His Highness really loves simple 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 the year 2000. Thankfully that or something like that is exactly what happened, which is why we still have Honke Owariya, arguably the oldest restaurant in Kyōto- which would likely make it the oldest in Japan- 544 years later.

Honke Owariya - Best Soba in Kyōto

Monks always say: 壊れてもいないものを直すべからず (If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it).

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 arses 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, and 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.

Honke Owariya – Best Soba in Kyōto

Honke Owariya - Best Soba in Kyōto

As an apprentice this is as grandiose as his day gets

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 (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 Owariya (who do an excellent sobazushi by the way) 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 mundane, soba has become by far my favorite Japanese food, so much so that I still slurp up the thick dark buckwheaty goodness of sansai-soba (country veggie) at the standing fast food noodle joint in Matsumoto whenever I head back that way. How, you ask, is it so highly favored among the blue bloods, the proletariat and, of course, foreigners like myself? 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 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). Ok, enough with the history and the health benefits, we get it already, so what, it’s good for you and allergy freaks can eat it too…can we see what’s all the fuss at Owariya?

Honke Owariya - Best Soba in Kyōto

Kamo Seiro (鴨せいろ) – Autumn Duck in fish stock

Duck is as seasonal as it gets in the old capital. At Owariya talk around the green tea cooler has it that the cook hunts the birds himself. True or not, this dish, Kamo Seiro (warm soba noodles with warm roasted duck in warm tsuyu dipping sauce), a close relative to Kamo Nanban (warm soba noodles with leeks), another Kyōto autumn / winter favorite, is masterful. Something about the autumn air and the changing colors makes people, especially Japanese people, and even more especially Kyōtoans, long for a taste of the season, and not being especially close to any seaside the people of the Imperial City generally agree: what does that better than roast duck? The crispy skin is like the falling leaves crunched underfoot as you walk in the chill dusk evening toward your lady friend’s house, the centimeter thick layer of beautifully textured fat redolent of 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, and 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 your time now, you look out the window and watch the people passing and the wind blowing the leaves to that far off sea. Things inevitably change, but thankfully some things do not.

Ginkaku-ji - The Silver Pavilion

Ginkaku-ji – The Silver Pavilion

Ginkaku-ji (銀閣寺) has so many names it’s best to keep it simple. Translated as Temple of the Silver Pavilion, it makes more sense once you know its official name: Jishō-ji (慈照寺) or the Temple of Shining Mercy. Because for one, where’s this so-called Ginkaku-ji – The Silver Pavilion? you may wonder to yourself as you stroll through the serpentine garden pathways. The two-story building located at the far end of the labrynth dedicated to Kannon, the Japanese version of the East Asian deity of mercy, …well, looks brown to me…but maybe it’s one big zen koan–find the silver lining within, not without, right?.

Located off the Philosopher’s Path in the Sakyō ward of Kyōto, it remains one of the best examples of harmonious confluence of natural and manmade elements. It didn’t start out with much harmony though, for although Higashiyama culture begins wafting the essence of wabi-sabi throughout the country during the Ashikaga reign of the late 15th and 16th centuries, developing chadō (Japanese tea ceremony), ikebana (flower arranging), noh drama, and sumi-e ink painting, this era is also known as the Sengoku Jidai — the Warring States Period — of the Muromachi era. And while this pristine sanctuary was being constructed on the still hot ashes of another garden villa, all hell was breaking loose outside.

The Ōnin war

'Squirrel on a Bamboo Stalk', Bearing the Signature & Seal of Sôami

‘Squirrel on a Bamboo Stalk’, Bearing the Signature & Seal of Sôami

Coming after the powerful Kamakura and preceding the Ieyasu ruling clans, the Ashikaga clan was the middle child of the Shogun rulers in medieval Japan, ruling from roughly the 14th – 16th centuries. Throughout the 250-year reign of the 15 shogun, the rulers depended more on the loyalty of the local lords than on military power, and thus were soon exposed as a kind of paper tiger that could not do much if you, say, didn’t pay your taxes. The first hundred years or so see the flowering of Kyōto amidst the rise of the Samurai and the Rinzai form of Zen Buddhism. It is during this time of general peace (and approaching discord) that much of the system of art that Japan is so well-known for was formalized.

The Ōnin War (1467–1477), a dispute brought on by the question of who would succeed the aging Yoshimasa, was most actively waged by the Hosokawa family and its allies, who favored Yoshimasa’s brother Yoshimi, against the Yamana family, who supported the current shogun’s suddenly-born male heir. Sounds like a goddamned soap opera, but unlike good melodrama, where are all the women? There had to have been a few devious and deadly femme fatalia pulling the strings behind the screen. Nothing here but rich old cranks who dig getting high on green tea and raking rocks and completely ignoring the thousands dying all around. Although fighting in Kyōto lasted for only 11 years, the conflict, for all intents and purposes, destroyed Kyōto, ruined the Ashikaga clan, and ignited the slow-burning and widespread revolt which would spread to outlying provinces, lasting for a hundred years, eventually bringing about Oda Nobunaga’s brutal unification.

Portrait of an Escapist

While others in Kyōto mastered Soba and the city burned, Yoshimasa practiced the fine art of tea ceremony, continuing plans for creating a retirement villa and gardens. So enamored was he of his grandfather’s Kinkaku-ji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion) and the gardens of Saiho-ji (Koke-dera) designed by Musō Soseki, Yoshimasa made the garden landscape of the grounds a priority above all else. He commissioned the artist Sōami to design the Ginsadan, the Sea of Silver Sand, the rock garden, with its now infamous cone of sand which is said to symbolize Mount Fuji. Nōami, the grandfather of Sōami, imparted his knowledge of the fledgling Zen priest practice of the wabi-cha style of tea ceremony to Murata Jukō. Murata is alleged to have been under the employ of Yoshimasa around this time. When finished around 1490, this villa would eventually be built on the remains of his brother Yoshimi’s temple-residence Jodai-ji. Except for his desire that Ginkaku-ji become a Buddhist temple associated with the Shokoku-ji branch of Rinzai Zen on his death, Yoshimasa was completely oblivious to all except for simplistic beauty of rocks and tea.

But the war had its annoyances as well. Despite his intention to cover the main structure with a distinctive silver-foil overlay, the way his grandfather had done with gold leaf on the nearby Ginkaku-ji, the war delayed the work so long that Yoshimasa died before its realization. Amidst political intrigue, of course. The current brown facade of the structure is likely to be the same as when Yoshimasa himself last saw it. Despite his initial desires to beautify it with silver leaf, he probably came to the realization that such decadence in war time was not just wasteful, but unwise, with a secondary benefit of being “unfinished”, illustrating one of the aspects of wabi-sabi perfectly if not a bit ironically.

Ginkaku-ji - The Silver PavilionDespite the temple remaining quite unfinished, in 1485 Yoshimasa became a Buddhist monk and took the name Jishō. It is said that he passed his days sitting in contemplation in the Dojinsai tea room in his Hall of the Eastern Quest (Tōgudō), taking tea with the key figures in the development of tea culture. Situated as it is at the far end of the Hōjō, it demands perhaps the most excellent view of the garden path, the various waterways and the growing moss that must have reminded him of better, more peaceful days, even as the war waged on around him, and enveloped more and more of Japan. During his reign as Shogun, Yoshimasa may have funded and formalized a large part of the traditional culture by which Japan came to fame, yet he was an administrative nightmare.

Nightmare perhaps, but fascinating to live in such a fiery time, and to be at the center of it all, yet instead of addressing it head on and jumping into the war, Yoshimasa got Zen and zoned out. Maybe somewhere in all of the daily manicuring of those beautifully raked rocks he knew that his legacy would outlive him–that despite the fragmented and bloody society that threatened to tear itself apart before his eyes, Japan would survive, and thrive even, and in that new land of the rising sun, would find hidden strength in the quietude and solemn ritual of the simple, imperfect art of brewing, serving, and enjoying tea within the confines of perhaps one of the most perfectly polished contemplative rock gardens ever conceived.

Okochi Sanso Villa

Okochi Sanso Villa

The former villa of the silent actor Denjirō Ōkōchi (大河内 傳次郎 — 1896-1962)–most famous for starring in Akira Kurosawa`s Sanshiro Sugata, among many others and at his peak, was one of the top jidaigeki stars–lies lost in the back of Arashiyama’s bamboo groves. Called Ōkōchi Sansō (meaning Ōkōchi mountain villa) Ōkōchi’s estate consists of several ornate gardens, living quarters and tea houses, all lost along a narrow path that winds circuitously through natural settings that appear wild, yet are meticulously kept by a regular team of professional landscapers. This is near the apex of the Japanese gardener trope–the private sector of gardening versus the Emperor’s gardeners… If you`re looking for an escape from the masses of tourists wandering around the backstreets of Tenryuji Zen Buddhist Shrine, the villa`s immaculately manicured gardens could be the middle way for you.

Okochi Sanso Villa

Okochi Sanso Villa

Okochi Sanso Villa Observation Platform Overlooking Kyoto

On humid summer days when the crowds are at a maximum and every corner of the shaded bamboo path are fraught with screams, follow the call of the cicada up the wide path into the deeper shade. It looks private on purpose, to drive away the tourist hordes. There always seems to be a work truck parked out front and the confusing entrance (located around a bend) is not altogether inviting. The 1000 cost of admission is high enough to keep the kids out and allows for the expanse of Mt. Ogura to open up and swallow you whole. Just behind Tenryūji Temple and Sagano Chikurin Komichi bamboo groves in Ukyō-ku, Kyoto, wandering through the ornate gardens will provide snatches of Mt. Hiei and the Hozu River gorge. Taking a moment out at the Okochi Sanso Villa Observation Platform overlooking the hustle of downtown Kyoto gives one perspective on the tranquility of the scene. Taking your time and strolling without desire increases the profound sense of benevolence that shrouds you in. Relaxing in the lower garden with the matcha and a sweet snack, done properly, will perhaps provide a memory of meditating monks from the collective unconscious to arise and permeate the day.

The Japanese government declared Daijōkaku (the main house), the Jibutsudō (a Buddhist shrine), the Chashitsu (tea house), and the Chūmon (the middle gate) as tangible cultural properties (tōroku yūkei bunkazai) in 2003. A particular highlight is getting there via the special Sagano Scenic Railway at Torokko Arashima Station. Although the closest station is Arashiyama on the Keifuku Electric Railroad Arashiyama Main Line, this sojourn is not about convenience or getting in and out. It is about the journey itself.

The 1000 yen admission includes matcha green tea and an odd little snack. Open from 9:00 to 17:00.

The Bamboo Groves of Arashiyama

The Bamboo Groves of Arashiyama

The Bamboo Groves of Arashiyama

Chikurin no Komichi – Sunlight Sneaks Through the Canopy along the path of Bamboo Groves in Arashiyama

In the western part of Kyoto along the Katsura river lies a heavily templed area known as Arashiyama. Most famous of all the beautiful century old wooden structures in Arashiyama is the Tenryu-ji Temple complex. Tenryu-ji Temple (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), head temple of the Tenryu-ji Rinzai Zen sect, was built in 1339 by Takauji Ashikaga (1305-1358), the first Ashikaga shogun. At its peak, Tenryu-ji Temple ranked as the largest Zen monastery in western Japan, with 120 sub-temples. The temple’s exquisite pond garden dates back to the Heian period and the garden itself is the work of Muso Soseki (1275-1351), one of the most respected Zen monks of the 14th century. Just outside the northern gate of the temple is Arashiyama’s famous bamboo forest path–Chikurin no Komichi.

The Bamboo Groves of Arashiyama

The Bamboo Groves of Arashiyama

Protected by Soft Brown Layerings, Fresh Shoots Strike Through the Grove Floor

Depending on the weather and time of day the light and shadow along this serene 200-meter path in concert with the wind flowing through the canopy will transport you to a meditative world of centuries past–a world without phones, cars and trains where walking through the grove was a regular zen meditative practice.

Easy enough to find after contemplating Soseki’s garden mirroring the surrounding mountainous landscape, the bamboo grove offers another treasure: the former estate of Denjiro Okochi (1898-1962), Japan’s most famous silent film star. Known as Ōkōchi Sansō, the spiral garden and teahouse complex houses a wondrous history worth exploring (entry includes a fine ceramic bowl of whipped green tea). The views from the seat of Ōkōchi Sansō, Mt. Ogura, has been talked about in classical poetry since Heian times.

Assuming you find, enter and tea party it up at Ōkōchi Sansō (participating in the tea ceremony is integral to the zen experience), following the bamboo forest path back to the diminutive Nonomiya Shrine (you passed it on the way up) should prove another small feat. Listen to the wind rustling through the bamboo leaves and picture Lady Murasaki’s 11th century classic Tale of Genji. The petite size of Nonomiya Shrine–where much like in the novel, generations of imperial princesses once spent a year undergoing purification rites before moving on to the sacred heart of Japanese Shintoism, Ise Grand Shrine–makes one wonder where they all were purified.

Having completed the western leg of your journey into the zen heart of Kyoto, it’s perfectly acceptable to stop by one of the many riverside restaurants and get meditative with a few draught beer.

Modern Japan with the Pinhole Holga

Modern Japan with the Pinhole Holga

In part VII of the series Manny Santiago looks at Modern Japan via the Pinhole Holga Panoramic. Generally available in the 120 and 35mm format, Holga pinholes have essentially the same bodies with the lens replaced by a pinhole. This lensless body produces infinite depth of field, meaning everything in the scene will be reasonably in focus.

The family of pinhole cameras has a base of the Holga 120PC without the lens while the Holga WPC (Wide Angle Panoramic) shoots 120 film in unique panoramic sizes; either 6x9cm or 6x12cm format for a super wide angle view. There is the Holga 135PC, modeled after the Holga 135mm camera and there is the Holga 3D Stereo Pinhole camera which shoots two pinhole images per shutter for dual side by side images. These images can then be mounted to view in 3D with a 3D viewer.

The basic principle of pinhole photography is that light passes through a pinhole rather than a lens to expose the film directly. The image on the film will be reversed but the advantage is there is no optical distortion so there is no need to focus and the angle of view is much greater.

Both a tripod and cable release are necessary for use with pinhole photography due to increased exposure times. Since there are no standard exposure times for pinhole photography, all approximate exposure times are to be used as a starting point. The key is to bracket.

HOLGA WPC & 3D PC f/135
Sunny – ½ sec.
Overcast – 2 sec.
Sunrise/Sunset – 18+ sec

Modern Japan with the Pinhole Holga

The Modern Japan Gallery

Sobazushi at Owariya Soba in Kyoto (HESO Magazine)

Sobazushi at Owariya Soba in Kyoto

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.

Sobazushi at Owariya Soba in Kyoto (HESO Magazine)

The traditional Seiro Soba is served cold with a dipping sauce

Sobazushi at Owariya Soba in Kyoto (HESO Magazine)

The cooks of Honke Owariya have been around for years and know their noodles.

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.

Sobazushi at Owariya Soba in Kyoto (HESO Magazine)

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