New Year in Japan brings with it all manner of ritual and circumstance. Observing the first sunrise. The all-important hatsumode shrine visit. Receiving (and assessing) nenga greetings. Perhaps even the sipping of otoso, the medicinal-tasting sake that guarantees health throughout the next 12 months. But for many people, the most pressing question is where to eat the first soba noodles of the year.
For traditionalists, there is only one choice to be made: Yabu Soba or Matsuya? Both of these venerable restaurants are of a similar vintage, founded in Meiji times and rebuilt after the great earthquake. Both inhabit superb wooden premises, wonderfully preserved and virtually neighbors in the same area of Kanda.
Thanks to their long history and popular acclaim, these are the two yokozuna of the soba world. But where Yabu boasts a dignified mien, worthy of the city’s merchants of means, Matsuya has the forthright honesty of a true shitamachi shokunin, a craftsman of the low city.
Walking from Awajicho subway station, it is Matsuya that you reach first. Chances are you will pause anyway, just to admire that magnificent facade. Built in 1924, it’s a perfect example of Taisho architecture, with handsome wooden gables, tiled half-roofs, two giant white paper lanterns hanging outside the second-story window and a miniature (but perfectly formed) strip of garden featuring pine and camellia trees.
And chances are you will be tempted to slide open the wooden door to have a look inside (though in this season you may have to wait half an hour or more). You will find it is every bit as atmospheric inside — not in terms of decor, perhaps, but certainly in the palpable buzz of enjoyment. More than 60 people can (and most of the time do) fit inside that dining room, sitting elbow to elbow on squat, rattan-covered stools, knees wedged in under equally scaled-down wooden tables.
It’s not meant to be comfortable, it’s a sobaya. You are there to slurp and leave, not to settle in. Many of the locals do like to take their time, though, ordering up beer (SuperDry) or sake (a basic brew best drunk warm; ask for atsukan), along with some simple side dishes: toasted nori seaweed; cold kamaboko fish paste; some tempura; or a stick or two of yakitori.
It’s all plain fare prepared with little subtlety, ferried from the kitchen at the rear of the house by a bevy of waitresses who sport demure aprons that would have already looked dated half a century ago. Always busy, always cheerful, they attend to things with matronly calm.
Because the noodles are te-uchi — freshly rolled and chopped by hand by a white-clad assistant who works nonstop in the glass-fronted booth at the back of the room — aficionados prefer to eat them unadorned, either mori (cold, with a dip) or zaru (the same, with nori), which are served on handsome trays lacquered maroon and black. However, few people find a single portion quite adequate, so either ask your waitress for o-mori (extra large portion) or catch her eye again and order a second helping.
The most remarkable aspect is how timeless it all feels. They’ve been serving up soba in this same down-home way for over eight decades now, and nobody wants them to change a thing. Matsuya is a rare surviving gem, one of Tokyo’s very tangible treasures.
Yabu Soba; 2-10 Kanda-Awajicho, Minato-ku; tel: (03) 3251-0287; open: 11:30 a.m.-7:30 p.m. daily. No credit cards; English menu available. Food File review (Jan. 10, 2003): www.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/getarticle.pl5?fg20030110rs.htm
The understated flavor of handmade buckwheat noodles, served with only the lightest of condiments, in a setting of understated refinement. Such is the ideal for the tsu, the heirs to the traditional connoisseurs of old Tokyo. And so, while Matsuya scores points for its unpretentiousness, the modern soba aficionado will necessarily gravitate to places of greater sophistication — such as Soba Sasuga.
The entrance — on Showa-dori, not one of Ginza’s ritziest thoroughfares — is marked by a handwoven gray noren at the head of a steep flight of stairs. The scale is dining-bar intimate, just an L-shaped counter with half a dozen chairs, plus a few small tables for almost 20 more. The look is classic modern wafu, with backlit alcoves and — apart from the bold checkerboard effect in sepia across the rear of the room — walls decorated with finely textured mud. The lighting is dimmed, and there is no background music.
Owner Chiaki Fujita opened Sasuga a year and a half ago, giving up a career in financial journalism to follow her deeper enthusiasm for the art and aesthetic of fine soba. She herself mastered the skills of noodle-making, but here she leaves the daily discipline of kneading, pounding, rolling and cutting the dough to her very capable kitchen team.
The noodles they produce are outstanding — fine-cut, delicate in texture and fragrant with the nuty aroma of freshly milled buckwheat grain. Because soba of this quality can so easily break apart when served in a hot broth, only three of the dozen soba dishes are served hot.
After several visits, we have already identified our favorites. Mori: cold noodles, placed on a simple basket-weave tray, with a rich, dark tsuyu dip; no unnecessary seasonings or other distractions, just a deep elegance of flavor. Tenzaru: the same noodles, but served with a crisp patty of tiny pink sakura-ebi shrimp, cooked in the lightest tempura batter you have ever tasted; it comes with a pinch or two of sea salt, that’s the only condiment you need. And, best of all, kamo-negi soba: noodles served in a rich, hot broth, with chunks of soft negi leek and slices of lightly cooked breast meat of Challans duckling; it is every bit as good as it sounds.
Like many of the new generation of soba restaurants, this is far more than just a superior noodle joint. The chefs are equally well trained in other aspects of Japanese cuisine and they produce a substantial menu of ippin ryori side dishes of considerable finesse, from sashimi and deep-fried fish to rolls of soba sushi, and even a couple of desserts.
Sasuga is just the place to linger. When we’re drinking sake — Fujita has selections from a handful of noted regional kura — we usually start with a saucer of the soba-miso, crunchy whole buckwheat kernels mixed with sweet-savory miso. And we never miss a chance to enjoy the delectable dashimaki, Japanese omelet; it is freshly cooked to order, light, fluffy and far more gently sweetened than is usual.
There is also a small but well-picked wine list, so the alternative route is to start the evening with a glass of Gosset and a couple of fresh oysters, followed by a bottle of Fleurie, perhaps, pairing it with grilled fish or more of that excellent duck. Whichever path you choose, everything is prepared with top quality ingredients and served on exquisite dishes of hand-thrown ceramic or chunky modern lacquer ware.
Fujita says her aim is to keep the traditions alive — not by trying to re-create the past in some retro way, but by presenting soba in the contemporary style and context it deserves. Mission accomplished, we’d say.