It’s fair to say Ippei Hayashimoto is not your typical noodle master. He wears his hair long, listens to Tom Waits and Neil Young as he works in his kitchen, and when he rolls up his sleeves, he reveals copious tattoo work.
If he looks more like a surfer dude, that’s because he was — and still is — one. But these days he is better known as one of the top soba artisans on the Shonan coast, south of Tokyo.
At weekends, people drive down from Yokohama and even from the metropolis, often waiting in line to eat the te-uchi (handmade) buckwheat noodles he serves at his humble, idiosyncratic restaurant, Bonzo, in Kamakura. In the years when Michelin’s Tokyo Guide included the Shonan area, Bonzo was awarded a coveted star three years running.
Now in his mid-40s, Hayashimoto recently marked Bonzo’s 10th anniversary. He sat down with The Japan Times to talk about his journey from backpacker to soba-meister — and why he may be back on the road again before too long …
How and why did you get into the world of soba?
I started training in soba when I was 27. But the seed of the idea came to me a lot earlier when I was in Australia for a year, surfing and diving. I realized people didn’t know anything about what makes Japan special or about its traditional culture. I continued traveling, working as a dive master, until I was 25 or so. But after getting back to Japan I decided to apprentice, to learn a traditional skill.
My aim was to master a craft and then return to traveling. I had three ideas: making soba, pulling a rickshaw or learning to forge swords. All three I could learn in my hometown, Kamakura. I also considered Japanese tattooing, but I knew I didn’t have the skills for that.
In fact, I planned a tryout with the rickshaw company first. But it was raining really hard that day, and the soba master was closer to my home. Fate intervened.
Where did you train?
I spent four years at a soba-ya in Kamakura called Issa-an. After World War II soba-making became mechanized, but my master was one of the few who continued the traditional te-uchi way. Actually, I didn’t know Issa-an was famous; I chose it because it was close to my home.
The way of working was in the old artisan style. The first year I just did the cleaning. Then, in the second year I got my cutting knife and I started to learn to make the noodles.
In the soba world they say it takes three years to master mixing the dough, three months for rolling it out, and three days for cutting the noodles. That’s an exaggeration, but it reflects the relative importance of the training.
You’ve become known for the jū-wari (100 percent buckwheat) soba noodles you serve. How did that come about?
When I opened Bonzo in 2008 I was making soba in the traditional ni-hachi style (with 20 percent wheat flour added to the buckwheat flour to bind it). But a customer told me he wanted me to try making pure buckwheat noodles. After a month or two I figured it out, and then the word started to spread. At that time no other soba shop in Kamakura was offering jū-wari soba.
You keep a small grinding stone inside the restaurant. Do you grind your own soba flour?
Yes, every day — but not by hand! Most places that serve jū-wari soba make it from husked buckwheat grain, which is whiter. But I also use the whole grain, still in its black husk. My flour is a mix of the two kinds. That’s why my noodles look darker.
You held a Michelin star for three years. Was that a surprise?
After I opened in 2008, things went well. However, 2009 was a really bad year in many ways and I thought I’d have to pack it in by the end of 2010. But then the first Michelin guide to Shonan came out and I was in it. It encouraged me to carry on.
What was your reaction?
I want to say it was a good thing, but actually I wasn’t that happy to be famous suddenly. Until then, my customers had increased through word of mouth in the local community. But after the announcement there were people lining up from 8 o’clock each morning.
People’s attitudes changed. They’d arrive in fancy cars and expect special service. They didn’t come to eat so much as to be there. I simply wanted to serve good food and make people happy. It all went a bit weird.
But thanks to Michelin I was able to continue. It’s also given me the confidence to start thinking of taking my soba abroad.
You now offer classes in soba-making for foreign visitors. Why?
I still want to take Japanese culture abroad. I’ve been thinking about Spain, especially Barcelona. France has a tradition of buckwheat galettes. But I think Spain would be easier to live in. Initially I thought learning the business would take five years, but it’s taken me 10 years to get this far. I think I’m ready now.
Is there any crossover between surfing and the world of a soba-maker?
One thing surfers know is that no two waves are alike. And that’s the same with making te-uchi soba: From one day to the next, it’s always a bit different. Even if you make really good soba one day, that doesn’t mean you will the next day. In that way at least, there are strong parallels.
Bonzo, 3-17-33 Zaimokuza, Kamakura, Kanagawa; 0467-73-7315; bonzo.shopinfo.jp; 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.(L.O.) and 6-9 p.m. (reservation only); closed Thursday