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December: A last tango with soba

by Kaori Shoji

Special To The Japan Times

Some men go out to buy that flaming red sportscar. Others embark on a messy but absorbing divorce process. Then there is of course, nirvana: the gorufujō (ゴルフ場, golf course). But in Japan, when men hit a certain age they have another option to turn to. The authentic mark of a honmono (本物, genuine) older man is that he foregoes material luxuries for the ibara no michi (いばらの道, path strewn with thorns) of soba-dō (そば道, the way of soba).

The bowl of soba is a deceptively simple phenomenon but, as with the cup of sencha (煎茶, green tea), it’s fraught with philosophical meaning and requires vast amounts of chishiki (知識, knowledge) to make, not to mention a sheer lust and obsession for buckwheat.

On the other hand, unlike tea — whose history is laced with intrigue, power-mongering and murder — soba has no glamour to it. Uneventful and jimi (地味, modest and unobtrusive), it has provided solace for generations of Japanese ojisan (おじさん, the middle-aged blokes) who have given their lives to their lords, country and companies and want a little joy for a change. When the older J-male in your vicinity starts to leaf through soba magazines or announces his plan to stroll through Kappabashi (合羽橋, Tokyo’s kitchenware and tool district) to procure a menbō (麺棒, soba rolling pin), soba-bōcho (蕎麦包丁, soba cleaver) and large wooden hachi (鉢, bowl), you know that he is about to stage an official exit from ordinary existence. His tamashii (魂, soul) has departed, into the ether-world of soba and the all-important issue of kona no haigō (粉の配合, the ratio of regular flour to soba flour). Is it 1 to 9 — as is said to be the ideal? Or maybe go for 0.2 to 9.8? A man can devote several decades to this deep and difficult problem, and a lot of them do.

So what is it about J-men and soba? I know my own father stubbornly stuck to a single lunch menu throughout his last 15 years of salarymanhood, and that was the seiro (せいろ, flat basket of cold soba noodles) from Nippachi Soba — a franchise so named after their kona no haigō of 2 (flour) to 8 (soba flour). From buying the shokken (食券, meal ticket) from the shop’s vending machine, sitting down to eat and, afterward, taking a last sip of soba-yu (蕎麦湯, hot water which had been used to boil the soba) from the plastic pitcher placed on every table, my dad’s lunchtime ritual took no more than 11 minutes. Soba joints are a standard in any Tokyo district — even when you can’t find coffee you will surely see a tachigui soba (立ち食いそば, standing soba counter place) in the immediate vicinity, patronized by the local salarymen and charging anywhere between ¥280 and ¥350 for a standard bowl.

Part the noren (暖簾, short curtain hanging outside the shop), step inside and you’re assailed by the collective noise of a crowd of men going “Zzzzz.” These guys aren’t sleeping, they’re slurping. A notable oddity of Japanese culture is that three “Z”s don’t make up the state of snoozing but of blissful slurping. Try getting between a man and his soba and you’re likely to be ignored, yelled at or both. The sobaya (蕎麦屋, soba shop) is the last bastion of the Japanese ojisan who refuses to kowtow to globalization entirely. He leaves a sliver of time in his life, a space in his soul, designated to soba. As long as he’s slurping, he’s free. Free to be completely Japanese.

It’s no wonder, then, that when an ojisan decides to datsusara (脱サラ, liberate himself from salaryman serfdom), he often takes his life savings and pours it into a soba shop of his very own. Naturally, he expects his wife to come on board, and often other female relatives join her to do the shitabataraki (下働き, waitressing, washing dishes, serving the soba-yu, etc). When you’re in a suburb, where all you can see is rows and rows of identical houses and suddenly come upon one with a sobaya kanban (看板, store sign) out on the front door, there’s a 100 percent chance it’s owned and operated by an ex-salaryman, expressing his undying love for buckwheat noodles in his converted living room.

December is the season of soba. The toshikoshisoba (年越し蕎麦, soba to pass from the old year into the new one) is traditionally eaten at midnight on the 31st, but ojisan will hardly wait for the end of December to tuck into a steaming hot bowl on a wintry night. After bōnenkai (忘年会, yearend drinking parties), Japanese men tend to split into two groups: The ojisan go for the healthy, low-cholesterol soba and the younger ones make their way to ramen shops for the shime (締め, finale) of the celebrations. My brothers say it’s one of the times they give thanks to the heavens: Nihonjin de yokatta (日本人で良かった, We’re glad to be Japanese)!