Shin Soba: Taste the Newly Harvested Difference

One of the healthiest fast food available practically everywhere in Japan is soba (そば). Soba shops can be found at many train stations, sometimes nearby, sometimes inside, and sometimes right on the platform. Pay for your order at a ticket machine and get your order in a  minute or two, but rarely much more than that. In the summer, these thin noodles made from buckwheat flour are best enjoyed cold with a dipping sauce. In the winter, soba in hot broth quickly warms up your belly. You can get soba at these ubiquitous stalls for less than ¥500, depending on your choice of toppings or side dishes, and diners in a hurry often eat them standing up. But before you pooh-pooh soba as cheap fare, these noodles are also on the menu of some of Japan's most expensive restaurants. Delicious soba is one of the easiest meals to prepare at home, thanks to easy to boil dried soba noodles and ready-to-use bottled soba sauces. Just add your favorite toppings (chopped leaks or spring onions, sesame seeds, wakame seaweed, or crispy tempura) to upgrade your soba experience.

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.

As Japanese festivals go, there is a bazaar right next to the soba stalls where you can buy local produce and handicrafts, including beautiful bowls and cups you can use for enjoying soba at home. Stage events entertain visitors who just want to sit, relax, and soak in the Chichibu countryside. 

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.
The soba field. Buckwheat plants newly harvested.

Noodles are freshly made and cut by hand.
The most delicious soba I have ever had.
The rustic atmosphere adds to the enjoyment of eating shin soba
Because this is Japan, there is of course a soba mascot
Get your own soba sauce cup at the bazaar.
Hand crafted wooden bowls for enjoying soba at home.

Sherilyn Siy