The first time I stepped into a Japanese soba (buckwheat noodle) shop, on a cold, snowy day, I felt like I had just entered a kindergarten for adults. Greeted by an orchestration of slurps, sucks, and smacks, I wondered how so many grown men in business suits could eat with such abandon.
Now, of course, I know that in Japan you’re supposed to slurp hot noodles, since it helps cool them down on their short journey to the mouth and slurping is considered much more efficient and less childish than blowing on them. Anyway, how else could you eat noodles with chopsticks?
Of course, as with most things, the more I learned about Japanese noodles, the more I realized what I didn’t know. What amazes me most is the diversity of the Japanese noodle, with as many variations as there are Italian pastas. There are thick noodles and thin ones, cold noodles and hot ones. The best are made by hand, needing only a refreshing soy-based broth for dunking. You can find noodle restaurants in all price ranges, from stand-up affairs around train stations to highbrow, Zen-like refuges.
Ask any Japanese, and they probably can name their favorite soba shop. Different regions are famous for their own noodle specialties. Osakans relish what they consider their own superior brand of udon (thick white wheat noodles), while people in Sapporo beat the winter chill at Ramen Yokocho, a tiny alley lined with shops dishing out steaming bowlfuls of ramen (Chinese egg noodles). In Fukuoka, where the weather is balmier, folks enjoy their evening ramen sitting outdoors at yatai (portable food stalls).
Nagoya is the proud home of two noodle specialties: kishimen (flat udon served with tofu, dried bonito shavings and green onions) and miso nikomi udon (served in a bean-paste soup and flavored with ingredients like chicken and green onions). Matsue’s warigo soba is so elaborate, I need instructions telling me how to adorn stacked layers of noodles wit grated daikon radish, yam, fish flakes, seaweed, and other condiments. Nagasaki owes its champon (a thick noodle usually served in soup with meat, seafood, and vegetables) to its long-time Chinese residents. Whenever I’m in Ibusuki in southern Kyushu, I always make a point of dining at an al-fresco establishment called Chozjuan, where somen (thin cold noodles) is dished out at each table from a communal circular bath of swirling water.
But alas, I will never be a soba connoisseur, fearing it would stick with me forever, I’ve never quire mastered the art of slurping.