The Soba Big Three: Enjoy These Regional Variations on Your Next Japan Trip

The Soba Big Three: Enjoy These Regional Variations on Your Next Japan Trip

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Soba sandai - three types of soba
Pictures: あらぴん; Kappaの旦那; HAPPY SMILE / PIXTA(ピクスタ)
There are more types of soba in Japan than you can shake a stick at - but these three regional styles capture the dish's variety and depth.

Soba is one of Japan’s most beloved and well-known dishes. And there are almost more types than you can count. Let’s take a look at the so-called “Big Three” (蕎麦三大; soba sandai) – and why experiencing each should be part of your next trip to Japan.

A (very brief) history of soba

Soba noodles
Picture: shige hattori / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

Soba, or buckwheat, has a long history in Japan. Historians have traced its existence in the country back some 9,000 years.

Soba’s use as a food staple goes back to the Nara era. However, people consumed it primarily in its milled or flour form. Because the crop can be harvested two or (if you were careful) three times a year, people in days of yore used it as an “emergency food” when times were lean.

It wasn’t until Japan’s Edo era that someone invented soba-kiri (蕎麦切り), or cutting soba into noodle strands. (The city of Koshu, in Yamanashi Prefecture, lays claim to the invention.) At the start of the Edo period, udon was the most popular noodle dish. But by the 18th century, soba had quickly outstripped it.

During the Edo period, soba noodles were steamed, not boiled. This preparation lives on today by either the name mori-soba (盛り蕎麦) or seiro-soba (せいろ蕎麦).

Soba noodles in Edo were prepared as 十割蕎麦 (juu-wari soba), or “100% soba” – i.e., 100% buckwheat flour with no added fillers. However, you could also get so-called ni-hachi soba (二八割蕎麦), in which the soba is mixed with regular flour. (7-11’s ni-hachi soba is one of my favorite high-protein meals at the chain.)

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Today, soba noodles are typically dunked in a sauce (つゆ; tsuyu) made from soy sauce and dashi, Japan’s ever-present bonito-based fish sauce. That’s also a change from the Edo era, when a miso base was the preferred sauce of choice.

The soba “big three”

There are more varieties of soba than you could possibly eat in a single trip to Japan. If you move to the country, your region will almost certainly have its own variation of the dish.

However, three types of local soba have earned such recognition that some have christened them the “big three” of soba (蕎麦三大; soba sandai).

According to JAL OnTrip, no one quite knows where the Big Three designation came from. There are also disputes about whether other, notable sobas should be included instead of the ones below. However, these three are generally regarded as representative of soba’s deep variety.

Wanko soba (Iwate Prefecture)

Wanko Soba (Iwate Prefecture)

I’ve written about how Morioka in Iwate, in the northeast of Japan’s main island of Honshu, has become a hot new travel destination for both domestic and inbound tourists alike. One of the highlights of a visit to Morioka or the city of Hanamaki is wanko soba.

For those who know some Japanese, “wanko” might bring images of puppies to mind. But it’s actually local dialect for the wooden bowls (生地椀) in which this dish is served.

Rather than heaped on a plate, wanko soba is served in bite-sized portions in small bowls. Restaurants will serve a number of these bowls at a time. When you’ve finished your first set, you can ask for more by saying 「はい、じゃんじゃん!」 (hai, jan-jan) or 「はい、どんどん!」 (hai, don-don).

Naturally, Hanamaki and Morika fight over which city invented this fun-sized soba serving style. Hanamaki attributes it to a visit by Edo-era daimyo Nanbu Toshinau. Morioka says the honor goes to former Prime Minister Hara Takashi, who reputedly said he’d only eat soba out of wooden bowls after his visit to the city.

According to JAL OnTrip, the most wanko soba anyone has ever eaten in a single sitting is 632 bowls. Think you can beat that record?

Getting to Morioka from Tokyo: Shinkansen (bullet train) – Hayabusa or Yamabiko trains

Togakushi soba (Nagano Prefecture)

Togakushi soba

Next, we head to Nagano, which is fertile ground for soba due to its extremes in temperatures and its cold winters.

As we said, soba noodles only date back to the Edo era. Yet togakushi has its roots in the Heian period. Mt. Togakushi is the home of shugendo (修験道), a set of ascetic practices combining elements of Shinto and Buddhism. (We’ve written about shugendo in detail in our piece on the Dewa Sanzan.)

Togakkushi is also where a traveling monk invented the use of soba and water to create a meal one could carry long distances on the road. In other words, it’s the literal birthplace of soba.

Togakushi soba’s trademark is the sparse use of water. The dish is generally served in five tightly-bound bundles on the plate. Spicy daikon helps gives the dish a unique accent.

Togakushi Shrine’s Soba Offering Festival and Soba Festival celebrate the new soba harvest in the autumn. For details on upcoming events, as well as information on other unique Japan travel ideas, check out the Togakushi English Web site.

Getting to Togakushi from Tokyo: Hokiriku Shinkansen to Nagano, followed by a bus to Togakushi

Izumo soba

Izumo soba
Picture: HAPPY SMILE / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

Finally, let’s pop over to Shimane Prefecture on the southwest coast of the island of Honshu and its contribution to soba cuisine, Izumo soba.

The hallmark of Izumo soba is its appearance and taste. Typically, soba is made by milling the buckwheat after it’s been husked. In Izumo soba, the husk is left intact and milled as is. This gives the soba a darker appearance. It also makes for a more nutritious dish.

Izumo soba is typically served one of two ways: either as a cold dish, known as warigo (割り子) soba; or hot, known as kamaage (釜揚げ).

Warigo is typically served in a three-layered dish. You pour the tsuyu sauce into the first layer, eat it, and then pour whatever sauce and seasoning remains into the second and third layers in turn. In contrast, kamaage is served more like you would enjoy ramen, served hot in a broth with your favorite toppings.

Getting to Shimane from Tokyo: Multiple options including the Shinkansen (two trains), plane, or bus (plane is your fastest and most convenient option).

Go beyond the noodle

Ramen, soba, and udon garner a lot of attention from tourists to Japan. Given the immense variety you can find in each dish from region to region, you could certainly do worse than sticking to these three for an entire trip.

But Japanese food – from traditional “washoku” dishes to Western-influenced fare – has a range that will keep your taste buds dancing for days. While in Japan, be sure to also extend your palette beyond the noodle!

A Simple Guide to Ordering in Japanese Restaurants

Sources

蕎麦(そば)の歴史~そばのルーツを探る~=Sobapedia=. Rakujyo

奥深い「日本三大そば」の世界。違いや特徴を知り、岩手・長野・島根の名店を訪ねる. OnTrip JAL

蕎麦切り発祥の地で蕎麦を味わおう!Koshu Life

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Jay Allen

Jay is a resident of Tokyo where he works as a reporter for Unseen Japan and as a technial writer. A lifelong geek, wordsmith, and language fanatic, he has level N1 certification in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) and is fervently working on his Kanji Kentei Level 2 certification.

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