During this most auspicious of Japanese seasons, it seems as if just about every kind of food is imbued with momentous import. From the mochi in the o-zoni soup with which the New Year’s morning is greeted to the array of colorful but austere o-sechi ryori tidbits, many of these dishes are appreciated more for their symbolism than any out-and-out flavor. But everyone — at least among the denizens of Tokyo — likes soba.
Those humble buckwheat noodles carry with them plenty of significance of their own, though. Because of their length as much as any consideration of their nutritional content, they are reputed to be an aid to health and longevity, as well as enduring relations. And, thanks to that well-loved homonym (the word soba also means “near”), they invoke the pleasure of proximity among family, friends and business associates.
So that is why, not just before the end of the old year, but also in the first weeks of the new, it is an indelible custom among traditionalists to drop by their favorite noodle shop to fill the stomach while simultaneously satiating the soul. And nowhere else in the city fulfills that double requirement as effectively as Kanda Yabu Soba.
Tokyo’s most famous noodle shop has been an institution ever since its founding in 1880. It sits in the heart of Awajicho, a quiet low-rise neighborhood that survived major wartime damage but which in recent years has increasingly fallen prey to the incursions of developers. Yabu Soba still stands proud, though, safely ensconced behind its sturdy wooden perimeter wall, its simple architecture a rebuff to the apartment blocks that loom behind.
You reach the wood-frame building via paving stones that traverse a tranquil, pocket-size garden, its large stone lantern almost obscured behind stands of bamboo and camellia. It almost has the feel of arriving at a traditional tea house — but at Yabu Soba nobody stands on ceremony.
The waitresses greet customers with a soft, high-pitched chanting, reminiscent of evening sutras at a rural nunnery, that is almost drowned out by the cheerful hubbub of the elbow-to-elbow camaraderie inside the dining room. They are formal but friendly, and never less than efficient as they ferry orders to and from the low wooden tables in the main dining room or the raised tatami area to one side.
Yabu’s noodles are made in the time-honored proportion of 10 parts buckwheat flour to one part wheat. However, they are much lighter and more delicate than the hearty, dark, fiber-rich inaka style of noodle found at many other shops where they make their noodles in house.
Yabu Soba is always busy, but especially so immediately before and after the New Year’s holidays. Unless you arrive in midafternoon, well away from meal times, that invariably translates into having to wait in line. So once you are installed in your seat, it is worth making a proper meal of it.
As at any sobaya worth its salt, they offer a good range of snacks and side dishes to go with your beer (Yebisu, in either small or medium-size bottles) or sake (warm atsukan, in simple white tokkuri flasks). With your drink you will be brought a small saucer holding a blob of dark brown neri-miso, a sticky mixture of soy miso mixed with togarashi (ground chili), duck fat, bonito flakes, grains of buckwheat and konbu seaweed, and just the right amount sugar. This sweet-savory-spicy condiment, which you just lick off your chopsticks, is so delectable they offer it as a take-home souvenir.
Other traditional snacks include sliced kamaboko fish paste, which is served with a dip of soy and a dab of pungent wasabi; and squares of nori seaweed, roasted crisp and brought to your table in quaint little wooden boxes that are well-patinated by years of loving use.
There are more sophisticated side dishes, too — soba sushi (700 yen), the noodles rolled up in norimaki style and cut into bite-size portions; ten-dana (1,200 yen; also known as ten-nuku), fritters of small shrimp, deep-fried in tempura batter; sashimi yuba (800 yen), the soft, creamy skin skimmed off the surface of hot soy milk; and nama uni (1,000 yen), fresh, pink sea urchin as a sashimi-style delicacy. Or ask for their appetizer sampler plate (gosai moriawase, for 1,200 yen), which features five of their side dishes, including grilled scallops and soba sushi.
Our personal favorite is always the aiyaki (1,200 yen), morsels of duck breast meat, lightly grilled and served hot with white negi leek. The soft, chewy fattiness of the duck meat together with the sharp, refreshing crispness of the negi makes it one of those all-time-classic combinations of tastes and textures.
It’s so excellent, in fact, that you may be tempted to repeat the experience by ordering the same thing on noodles. The kamo-nanban soba (1,500 yen) — hot noodles in a dark, savory soup, topped with more of those grilled morsels of duck and shreds of negi — is one of the specialties of the house. So too is the tempura seiro (also 1,500 yen), the same tempura of small prawns, served with chilled noodles on a bamboo tray. Top of the line, though, is the anago nanban soba (1,700 yen), featuring grilled anago eel with sliced negi in a piping hot broth.
Because portions are small and so easily digested, many habitues order double servings, or two different kinds of noodle at once. That is not obligatory, of course, and locals often drop in merely to inhale a single portion to keep the wolf from the door and then make a speedy exit, often spending less time at the table than they did to get through the door.
To any son (or daughter) of the shitamachi neighborhoods, a visit to Yabu Soba is as important a part of the New Year’s ritual as going to pray for continuing cash flow at the nearby Kanda Myojin shrine. For the rest of us, it remains one of those very tangible national treasures that is worth a pilgrimage at any time of year.