NUMATA, GUNMA PREF. - Rurika Koike, 18, is a one-of-a-kind champion. She won the all-Japan high school tournament this summer for excellence in the art of making soba.
In the annual championship, 154 students from 32 schools from northern to southwestern Japan don caps and white aprons to test their noodle-making skills over exactly 40 minutes. They use a blend of buckwheat and wheat flour to formulate the final product.
Examiners keep close tabs on the way competitors mix the buckwheat powder with water, and how they knead, stretch and cut the dough into noodles. They also monitor the preparatory steps, ensuring the teens wash their hands and lay out their kitchen utensils while maintaining a clean working space.
Despite the high-pressure, sweat-inducing environment, points are deducted if a single drop falls into the big mixing bowl. Competitors are also rated on the tidiness of their clothes and on how clean their utensils are, with any errant leftover flour required to be immediately cleaned up.
The judging ends when competitors have finished cleaning their work spaces. The competition focuses on their skill in making the noodles, not their ability to cook them, the organizers say.
“I was nervous before the competition but when it got started I returned to my usual self,” said Koike, a third-year student at Tone Jitsugyo High School in Numata, Gunma Prefecture, who has been a participant since the contest was launched in 2011.
“When you keep the right posture, you can avoid using too much power but it is hard to maintain the position for 40 minutes,” said Koike, who can now predict roughly how much water is needed to make the dough by the texture of the blended flours.
“The profundity of soba-making is that the result differs day by day, depending on the temperature or humidity or the type of buckwheat flour. Sometimes it turns out too soft,” Koike said. “I like experimenting on how to make the best soba.”
Numata, a city high in the mountains with marked temperature swings and the rich spring water needed to produce buckwheat seeds, provided the natural environment for her to familiarize herself with the intricacies of making soba. With an output of some 450 tons, Gunma was ranked the 12th-biggest producer of soba seeds in fiscal 2017 out of all 47 prefectures.
The noodles can be eaten either hot or cold with a soy-based sauce. The many varieties differ across Japan, depending on the climate and ingredients. Soba is said to have been introduced to Japan around the Jomon Period (10,000 B.C. to 300 B.C.).
Koike said she became fascinated with soba in junior high school through her father, who made the noodles as a hobby, and found herself preparing the dish for New Year’s Eve, as is traditional in Japan. She chose to enroll at Tone Jitsugyo High School, which began offering soba-making lessons in 2006 as part of its course on food processing and culture.
Koike’s training base there is the Soba Dojo, a classroom once used for machinery studies. With the help of a local soba association, the dojo was equipped with desks around the same size and height of those actually used in the tournament, big bowls to mix water and flour, rolling pins to flatten and spread the dough, and special knives to cut the dough sheets into equal widths.
The students who practice soba-making do not necessarily go on to work at noodle restaurants after graduation, said Kazuhiko Sato, a teacher at the high school in charge of the related activities.
“I want students to become proud of themselves and gain confidence through soba-making and by persevering to reach a rank, or dan, for their technique,” he said. “Making handmade noodles here also creates direct communication with the local community.”
“After they finish making soba noodles for practice, the students give out leftovers to neighbors or other people close by, and the community, in turn, gets behind the students,” Sato said.
Taking part and demonstrating their noodle-making skills in festivals is another way students get involved with the community.
“There is a sense of tension whenever I make soba noodles in front of a crowd because I feel that I need to be good,” said Ami Hoshi, another third-year student at Tone Jitsugyo High School, after performing at a Japanese-Russian cultural exchange event at the Gunma Prefectural Government’s headquarters in October.
“I have now acquired second dan and will work at an auto parts manufacturer after I graduate high school, but I still want to continue training to get third dan,” she said.
Shigeo Abe, an assessor at the Japan Council for Interregional Soba Culture Exchange, a nationwide association promoting soba culture, said, “One of the difficult steps is to adjust the amount of water when you sift and mix flour and buckwheat flour in a big bowl.”
But he also said soba makers shouldn’t dwell just on the process. He said they should never forget to enjoy the noodles, which are made from a highly nutritious grain particularly rich in vitamin B, as a delicacy.
National champion Koike already seems to have acquired the spirit.
“Handmade soba is delicious, nothing compared to the dried noodles sold in stores,” she said. “You can smell the great aroma of buckwheat not only when making buckwheat dough, but certainly when eating soba.”