Explore the Diversity of Japan's Noodle Culture
Updated: Dec 2
How Many Bowls of Iwate's Famous Wanko Soba Can You Eat?
Wanko soba is a dish where you eat soba noodles from a small bowl in front of you, and the server keeps adding more soba to the bowl, allowing you to eat as many bowls as you like until you're satisfied. There are various theories about its origin, one of which traces it back to Hanamaki City during the Edo period.
When Lord Nanbu Toshinao, the feudal lord of the Nanbu domain, visited Hanamaki Castle (in Hanamaki City, Iwate Prefecture), he was served a small portion of the local speciality soba in a lacquered bowl. He enjoyed it so much that he asked for seconds multiple times. Due to the local dialect in Iwate, which adds "ko" to the end of words, the soba served in lacquered bowls (“owan”) came to be known as "owanko soba," which later evolved into "wanko soba."
The wanko soba served today offers a glimpse into regional characteristics. For example, Morioka City is characterized by a playful style where servers rhythmically encourage diners with chants like “Hai Jan Jan!” and “Hai Don Don!” However, in Hanamaki City, there are no chants as wanko soba was a hospitality dish for the lord. In the Hiraizumi and Ichinoseki areas, the Moridashi style is famous, where bowls filled with soba are lined up on a tray, and you can enjoy them at your own pace.
A typical serving of wanko soba consists of a small portion of soba noodles dipped in hot broth and served in a small bowl. It is said that 10-15 bowls of wanko soba are equivalent to one regular serving of soba noodles. On average, adult men consume around 50-60 bowls. One of the joys is watching the bowls pile up as you take each mouthful. Some restaurants offer a variety of condiments and side dishes to accompany the soba, allowing you to enjoy different flavors. If a server is present, covering your bowl with the lid indicates you've finished your meal. So, how many bowls have you been able to stack up?
Learn the Japanese Etiquette for Eating Noodles and Savor the Local Varieties
While some regions in the world consider it rude, it's customary in Japan to slurp noodles (especially soba noodles) as you eat them. There are various theories as to why this eating style originated. Still, one plausible explanation is that slurping noodles allows air to be drawn in along with the noodles, enhancing the aroma and flavor of the noodles in your mouth.
The key to this method is to use your chopsticks to pick up a small amount of noodles and slurp them down in one bite. This not only makes for an aesthetically pleasing experience but also allows you to fully savor the flavors of the noodles and the broth.
Inaniwa Udon: Combining Delicious Taste and Amazing Presentation
Akita's Inaniwa udon, renowned as one of Japan's three great udon varieties alongside Kagawa's Sanuki udon and Gunma's Mizusawa udon, originated approximately 350 years ago in the Inaniwa area in Yuzawa City, Akita Prefecture.
The Inaniwa area is an area with heavy snowfall, where snow remains for half of the year. To cope with the harsh winters, people in this region have been cultivating wheat for centuries and using it as a preserved food source. During this time, a local resident named Ichibei Sato began producing dried udon using locally sourced wheat flour. The manufacturing method, passed down as a cottage industry since the Edo period, was publicly disclosed in the Showa era, and the production volume of Inaniwa udon increased significantly, eventually becoming a famous speciality of Akita.
Despite the growth in production, the process of making Inaniwa udon remains rooted in handmade artistry and the relentless pursuit of flavor enhancement, a tradition established and preserved by its forebears and passed down through generations. Wheat flour and saltwater are kneaded, flattened, cut, rounded, stretched, matured, and dried, all over a period of approximately four days, with every step meticulously carried out by skilled artisans. Only after this rigorous process is complete can the Inaniwa udon be considered truly finished.
To fully appreciate the flavors of Inaniwa udon, it is recommended first to try it cold and dipped in broth. Upon placing the slightly thin, flat noodles into the dipping sauce and taking a bite, you'll be instantly captivated by the noodles' smoothness. Then, you'll experience a firm and substantial texture, even more pronounced than what meets the eye. Finally, the silky-smooth, exquisite texture is the true essence of Inaniwa udon. Additionally, try lifting a strand of the boiled noodles with your chopsticks and holding it up to the light. You'll notice the beautiful milky-white hue as if the surface is translucent. The visual appeal of Inaniwa udon is a testament to the traditional craftsmanship, making it a true work of art.
Yamagata Offers a Diverse Selection of Ramen and is the No. 1 Consumer of Ramen in Japan!
Among the prefectural capitals and ordinance-designated cities in Japan, Yamagata City in Yamagata Prefecture has the highest per-household expenditure on dining out for ramen (According to the Household Survey by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications). Yamagata is renowned throughout Japan as the mecca of ramen, a dish that has sparked a global craze.
There are several reasons why Yamagata has become a ramen kingdom. One of them is that not only ramen shops but also soba restaurants offer ramen. Generally, soba and udon are the main dishes served at soba restaurants, but in Yamagata, ramen (Chuka soba, lit. “Chinese Soba”) is almost always on the menu. Moreover, the quality of ramen is high in every shop, and there are even soba restaurants that are more popular for their ramen. The second reason is that ramen is considered a hospitality dish. In Yamagata, it is customary to order ramen for relatives or guests who come to visit or to go to soba or ramen shops to eat. Thirdly, it is said that people don't stop eating ramen even in the hot summer because it offers cold ramen with cold noodles and broth.
The first restaurant to introduce cold ramen was the soba restaurant Sakaeya Honten in Yamagata City. Inspired by customer requests for cold ramen, they created a flavorful dish featuring a cold broth and firm-textured noodles.
Another Yamagata ramen originating from soba restaurants is the Tori Chuka. It features a Japanese-style dashi broth that complements soba, combined with Chinese noodles and seasoned chicken toppings. Initially, it was a staff meal at the soba restaurant Suisha Kisoba in Tendo City. However, due to word-of-mouth recommendations, it became a secret menu item offered to customers and quickly turned into a massive hit.
In addition, Yamagata Prefecture is home to a diverse range of unique regional ramen. For example, there's the Akayu Spicy Miso Ramen served in Nanyo City in the southern part of the prefecture. This is an original creation from the ramen shop Akayu Ramen Ryu Shanghai. In the 1950s and 60s, when soy sauce ramen was the norm, and well before Sapporo miso ramen gained fame, they had been developing and serving miso ramen. They melt the Kara-miso (spicy miso paste) with locally sourced chilli peppers into a rich and flavorful broth, which pairs excellently with thick, curly noodles.
Sakata City, on the coast of the Sea of Japan, has its own local ramen called Sakata ramen. The broth boasts a refreshing flavor with a hint of seafood befitting of a port town. The standard noodles are medium-thin and wavy, with high water content designed to complement the soup. Furthermore, approximately 80% of ramen establishments in the city use homemade noodles. A crucial topping for Sakata ramen is the wonton, with its paper-thin skin that is almost transparent, providing a delightfully soft and tender texture.
In the southern part of Yamagata Prefecture lies Yonezawa City, which is known for its Yonezawa ramen, which features a soy sauce-based broth that uses chicken bones and dried sardines paired with hand-kneaded thin, curly noodles. In the northern city of Shinjo, there is Torimotsu ramen, which features a chicken bone-based soy sauce broth with fresh simmered offal. These regional ramen varieties, reflecting the local culture and character, attract many ramen enthusiasts from Japan and abroad to visit Yamagata. You can Explore the Diversity of Japan's Noodle Culture