Serving up soba and shrines

Togakushi, in Nagano Prefecture, is renowned for its delicious noodles and scenic strolls

by Mandy Bartok

The lump of dough in the large mixing bowl in front of me doesn’t look like much, but soba-making instructor Hatuko Tokutake isn’t concerned.

“You have to knead it at least 150 times,” she coaches me, confident in her 10 years experience as a soba maker. “Then you will see it start to take shape.”

Under her patient guidance, I work my hands through the fine buckwheat flour so famous in this region, taking turns with my husband and fellow soba devotee Paul. Several long minutes later, Tokutake nods her approval at our efforts, and we slap the dough down on the large wooden cutting board nearby. Before we roll it out, however, she stops to make sure we understand the technique.

“Start with your hands facing in this direction,” she explains, the rolling pin angled away from her at a 45 degree slant. When I ask her the reason, she smiles and says simply, “It’s the way we do it here in Togakushi.”

No matter how they choose to roll their soba dough in Togakushi, there’s no doubt that this mountainous region north of the city of Nagano is renowned for producing some of Japan’s tastiest noodles. High elevations and drastic temperature changes combine to form the perfect growing conditions for the white-petaled buckwheat plant that blankets the hillsides in summer and autumn. Not only does it paint a scenic tableau — especially in the harvest season — but this simple crop has solidified Togakushi’s reputation as a top-notch soba region, and the Togakushi Soba Museum is more than happy to show visitors why.

Paul and I have dropped by for a morning course on how to prepare Togakushi’s signature dish and veteran instructor Tokutake is putting our culinary skills to the test.

With the dough flattened into an oval-shaped pancake, Tokutake sprinkles extra-fine flour from the stalk of the soba plant onto its surface and folds the circle in half several times. She then grips a lethal-looking soba knife in her right hand and effortlessly slices up millimeter-thin strands.

“Not too thick,” she cautions, as she passes us each the blade in turn. We mimic her motions and gather the finished product into a bamboo basket. “Shall we cook it now?” Tokutake asks with a smile. Our growling stomachs amplify our reply and she heads to the kitchen to prepare our feast.

Ten minutes later, a helping of soba large enough for a family of five appears at our table, accompanied by small dishes of salt and the museum’s signature dipping sauce.

“Try it first without anything, then with salt, and finally the sauce,” Tokutake suggests, and we follow her advice with our first bites of fresh noodles. Out of the corner of my eye, I notice the museum’s kitchen staff and other instructors watching carefully for our reaction. There’s no need for pretenses, however. Our proclamation of “Delicious!” is genuine and we eagerly dig in.

When we can eat no more, Tokutake agrees to wrap up our remaining noodles and — leftovers in hand — we head across the hall to explore the museum exhibits.

“Soba’s been a big part of Togakushi since the late 17th century,” explains friendly docent Tunejirou Iijima as he leads us around the thoughtfully-prepared displays. Among the collections the museum has on offer are old ukiyo-e (woodblock prints) of soba-slurping courtesans and a variety of tools used in the buckwheat-cultivation process. Though it’s unclear how the plant arrived in the region, Iijima notes that the hearty noodles have long been served to pilgrims visiting the area’s mountain shrines, and yearly autumn festivals celebrate the important buckwheat harvest.

With the morning wearing on and a thorough soba education under our belts, we’re ready to explore the region’s aforementioned shrines and find a way to walk off the mass of noodles we’ve gobbled up. A short ride up the road from the Togakushi Soba Museum, the local bus terminates its route at the trailhead for the Okusha subshrine, the uppermost of the three-part Togakushi Shrine. A giant wooden torii gate stands sentinel-like at the head of a forest path lined with over 300 majestic cryptomeria trees. In autumn, hikers swirl their way through piles of red and yellow leaves on a half-hour climb to the shrine’s main hall, which sits serenely against a picturesque backdrop of tall peaks. Most visitors stop here to enjoy the stunning view over the hills and write prayers of good fortune on the shrine’s dragon-emblazoned ema (prayer plaques); more intrepid souls continue up the knife-edged ridge on a multihour hike to take in the scene from nearer the clouds.

Back down at the base of the mountains, we follow a side path that leads deeper into the woods and through one of the region’s rare wetlands. Boardwalks crisscross the swampy flatlands and birdwatchers gather here to catch sight of more than 120 species that populate the area. Cattails soon give way to sturdy oaks as the path winds south, past tiny Inari shrines and stone statues that keep watch over passing travelers. Under the leafy canopy, the midday heat is kept at bay, though the shady path is conspicuously void of other hikers. We amble along, enjoying both the cool breezes and the lack of crowds.

Backcountry meets blacktop again a few kilometers later at the edge of Mirror Lake, which has rightly earned its moniker. Here, cars, caravans and day hikers mingle along the shores of a lake on whose glassy surface snowy clouds and azure skies are reflected. In any season, the banks are crowded with both snap-happy tourists and professional shutterbugs as they attempt to capture the surrounding scenery shining on the clear waters.

From Mirror Lake, it’s a steep climb back up into the hills where we’re treated to magnificent views of distant mountain ranges. We hike for a kilometer or two in near silence along the top of the ridge, both of us content just to soak in the peaceful forest atmosphere. At the hidden Kotoriga (Small Bird) Lake, we stop for one final moment of blissful solitude before a gentle descent brings us out of the woods and back to civilization.

The path ends in the hamlet of Chusha, home to the second of Togakushi’s mountain shrines. Across from the base of the shrine’s stone staircase, a line has formed outside Uzuraya Soba, with chattering customers eagerly awaiting their turn in one of the region’s most celebrated soba eateries. We pause for a moment and debate joining the queue, until the weight of the soba leftovers in our backpack reminds us of our morning efforts. We may not have years of experience behind us, but I’m sure that today, our noodles will taste just as good.

Togakushi is reached by highway bus from the city of Nagano, Nagano Prefecture, which runs hourly and leaves from outside the Nagano Bus Office across from the JR station (¥1,000 to ¥1,170, one way). The Togakushi Soba Museum is open 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Soba-making courses cost ¥3,000 for two to four people; a tasting session is ¥700. Admission to the museum is included in the course fee.