It’s early morning on a Sunday and the Yushima Tenman-gu in Tokyo’s Kanda district is packed with students. They’ve come for the same reason I have: to pay tribute to Tenjin, the god of knowledge, after whom the Shinto shrine was dedicated. It’s a popular practice, apparently, as prayers and offerings made here are believed to enhance the chances of entering any one of the exclusive colleges located in the quarter, including the aristocratic University of Tokyo.
Like the nervous students huddled around me, I offer an ema, a small wooden plaque where prayers to Tenjin are written and hung from trees. It’s an entirely symbolic gesture, but, nevertheless, one I hope helps me get through my first class in soba-making. As with so many of the nation’s traditional crafts, the art of making soba is fast losing favor among younger generations of Japanese and my goal is to learn how authentic buckwheat noodles are produced before the skill is lost forever.
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Just a few hundred meters from the shrine is Yagura, a restaurant specializing in soba dishes. On the second floor of the famous neighborhood establishment is where classes in soba-making are held on weekends. My guide reminds me it’s one of the only institutions in the city that accepts foreigners, but since classes are conducted in Japanese, bringing along an interpreter is necessary if you don’t speak the language.
Unlike the elite universities close by, however, there are no strict admissions policies or steep fees. Beginner courses start at JPY 2,800 (USD 28) per session and classes are open to both men and women of any age, although soba-making classes are more popular with men as the process requires a significant amount of upper body strength.
Soba Masters are also predominantly male. At the helm of the class is Professor Kishia Nagao, one of Tokyo’s most experienced teachers. The fancy academic title is a real one: it takes exactly three years, three months, and three days of intensive training to be an accredited soba professor—with written and practical certification exams administered annually in order to keep the title.
Naturally, all courses begin with an introduction to soba, a distinctly Japanese noodle, the best of which are made from buckwheat grown and harvested in farms in Fukushima, Nagano, and Hokkaido. The soba the world outside Japan is familiar with is a far cry from the stuff made by artisans like Nagao-san and his apprentices. What we get in groceries and restaurants isn’t what’s considered authentic soba but mass-produced and machine-made noodles that mix a fair amount of regular flour with buckwheat to save on the cost and time needed to produce it.
At Yagura, only 100 percent natural buckwheat flour is used to make the soba, but the results are instantly visible and palatable: coarse in texture, pale brown in color, and tasty even without the dipping sauce or broth to enhance its flavor. Natural soba is also healthier as it has far less gluten than the commercial flour-based noodles sold on the market.
To make natural buckwheat flour, the seeds are shelled and the grain ground into powder. On paper, the rest of the process seems straightforward: add water to the flour to make the dough, knead and flatten, and cut into thin strips that form the noodle; in all, a procedure that’s not unlike pasta. In reality, however, it’s a much more delicate, time-consuming, and physically challenging exercise (pun intended) made all the more difficult by the fact that students are trained to rely on memory, intuition, and “hand feel” rather than resort to common measuring instruments. In this sense, soba-making is really more of an art, although precision is required every step of the way: from the right amount of time needed to knead the dough, to the exact pressure required to flatten it, and, ultimately, the perfect cutting skills vital to produce the uniformly narrow strips of soba noodles.
Once you master this process, getting the noodles from the cutting table to the plate is simple. In fact, the freshly-cut soba can be eaten straight away, although most prefer to boil the noodles first in order to soften them to an al dente consistency. The buckwheat-flavored water used to boil the noodles is usually saved as a broth and served along with the dish. For most Japanese, however, soba is more commonly served chilled with a topping of shredded nori seaweed and dipped in a sweetened soy- and mirin-based sauce called tsuyu. But there are countless other ways of serving soba: hot, cold, as a noodle soup, or with tempura; like pasta noodles, the possibilities are endless.
But, as you quickly learn from your classmates at Yagura, only one rule applies when enjoying the noodle dish: that is to slurp it as loud and as much as you wish—no doubt, the ultimate complement one can pay the artisan who painstakingly crafted it.
Yagura 3-29-5, Yushima, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo Tel: +813 3836 3900
Photographs by David Celdran