Compared to udon, thick white wheat flour noodles, and ramen, often swimming in fatty broth, soba is clearly the healthiest noodle choice. During the Edo Period, many wealthy people suffered from beriberi, a disease caused by deficiency in B vitamins resulting in nerve inflammation and heart failure, due to a diet of mostly white rice. Thiamine-rich soba was discovered to prevent beriberi and its use was encouraged. Aside from thiamine, soba is rich in antioxidants, all eight essential amino acids particularly lysine which is absent in wheat flour. Furthermore, soba's polysaccharide is easily absorbed by the body.
Soba fans swear by soba freshly made from newly harvested buckwheat, called "shin soba". The resulting noodles are more flavorful and sweeter than usual. To see for ourselves, we went to the Chichibu Arakawa Shinsoba Matsuri.
The festival grounds consisted of stalls of different soba makers lining the borders of an empty soba field, the buckwheat plants having been harvested. Each stall has their own specialty. Some offer tempura with their soba, while others had a duck based sauce. Expect long long lines between 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Soba sets are a little over ¥500 and more depending on the extras you order. We tried the chilled soba served on zaru bamboo trays that drain out the water. To be honest, I'm more of an udon and ramen person rather than a soba person but shin soba won me over. It is, by far, the best soba I have ever had in my life. The noodles were hand cut and therefore uneven. They were perfectly al dente. And as promised by soba gourmet, more flavorful and sweeter than usual. It is best to go with a friend so that you can order from different stalls and share the noodles.
The 24th Chichibu Arakawa Shinsoba Matsuri is scheduled on November 19, 2017 (Sunday). The festival grounds is best accessed by train. Take the Seibu Ikebukuro Line from Ikebukuro all the way to Hanno. At Hanno, change to the Seibu Chichibu Line and take this train all the way to Chichibu, the last stop. If you are in a hurry and have money to spare, take the Red Arrow express train from Ikebukuro to Chichibu. Either way, you will see the resplendent oranges, reds and yellows of autumn foliage from your train window. After you exit the station, look for the free shuttle buses that take visitors to and from the soba fields. The bus ride is a wonderful opportunity to appreciate the view of the Chichibu mountains.