Owariya Soba

October 26th, 2010By Category: Photography

Visualize if you will, a spry young man in his work kimono made of an easy-to-clean light fabric, walking down the dirt-paved roads of the old capital Kyōto to the clickety-clack of hundreds of Japanese sandal-wearing passers-by as they go about their daily business, smiling and nodding while the deciduous trees rain orange and red fires of leaves all around. With a wave of the hand, a quick “konnichiwa” to his neighbors, and a right turn past the entrance curtains, our man enters his shop. A small storefront with a tiny garden pond to the left and a backroom for kneading, mixing and baking makes up the modest shop, all separated by the thinnest of rice-paper shoji sliding doors, yet somehow keeping the cool autumn breeze from disturbing the still sun-dappled air of the fine-milled flours and powdered sugars floating like benevolent ancestral ghosts around the confectionery. The year is 1465 in Nakagyo ward, just south of the grounds of the Emperor’s palace, and you have entered Honke Owariya.

Owariya - Seiro Soba

When you find yourself in Kyōto with an autumn afternoon to kill, dropping by Owariya is a great way to partake in the lunch the imperial family, Ginkakuji monks, and blue collar locals have been eating since 1465. Seated in the traditional bamboo setting, you read that the restaurant was established 545 years ago, and your mind begins to go numb. These kinds of numbers don’t mean anything to Americans – 544 years of uninterrupted service means that they had already been serving sweets and noodles for more than 300 years by the time the 13 British colonies got off their lazy bottoms and decided to unify into something called the USA. The soup recipe you slurp is likely older than your own country’s constitution, and much more delicious, which may make you wonder, just exactly what is soba?

According to Owariya, soba “are thin grey noodles made from sobako, or buckwheat flour.” Depending on which area of Japan you live in, they range in percentages of purity from 100% juu-wari inaka-soba (Nagano) to mixtures containing various wild mountain yams, green tea and even mugwort. It ranges from the traditional kaiseki-esque 500 + year-old stuff of Owariya all the way to small shacks serving bowls of the stuff as fast, cheap food for businessmen who don’t have five minutes to sit.

Autumn is the time of year where the mingling of fire and air is visible in the leaves all around, and a good way to pass a late afternoon is to get a hot bowl of Seiro or maybe the seasonal Kamo Nanban duck. As you bite down and union is achieved, you taste the centuries old stock now with a hint of oaky barbecue added as ballast and realizing that this meal too, perfectly balanced as it is by the light buckwheat noodles awash in their own sobayu, like others, will pass, you slow down. Taking your time now, you look out the window and watch the people passing by and the wind blowing the leaves to that far off sea. Things inevitably change, but thankfully some things do not.


Author of this article

Manny Santiago

Hopping back and forth between Tokyo and San Francisco, the founder of HESO Magazine is currently writing a book on Overland Travel.

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