Tokyo: A Sanctuary for Noodles and Nostalgia

Modern high-rises hem in the traditional building that houses Kanda Yabusoba i i

Modern high-rises hem in the traditional building that houses Kanda Yabusoba, a venerable noodle restaurant in Tokyo that dates back to 1880. Chie Kobayashi hide caption

itoggle caption Chie Kobayashi
Modern high-rises hem in the traditional building that houses Kanda Yabusoba

Modern high-rises hem in the traditional building that houses Kanda Yabusoba, a venerable noodle restaurant in Tokyo that dates back to 1880.

Chie Kobayashi
A typical meal at Yabusoba includes sake or shochu, another type of Japanese liquor and num i i

A typical meal at Yabusoba includes sake or shochu, another type of Japanese liquor, and numerous small dishes. Here, from top to bottom: roasted duck and scallions; creamy, congealed skin skimmed off soybean milk; and pieces of white fish meat and horseradish, which are minced, shaped and steamed. Anthony Kuhn, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Anthony Kuhn, NPR
A typical meal at Yabusoba includes sake or shochu, another type of Japanese liquor and num

A typical meal at Yabusoba includes sake or shochu, another type of Japanese liquor, and numerous small dishes. Here, from top to bottom: roasted duck and scallions; creamy, congealed skin skimmed off soybean milk; and pieces of white fish meat and horseradish, which are minced, shaped and steamed.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR
Seiro soba is cold, light-green buckwheat noodles with a soy-sauce-based mixtures. i i

The most basic option for soba is seiro soba: cold, light-green buckwheat noodles dipped in a soy-sauce-based mixture called tsuyu. Chie Kobayashi hide caption

itoggle caption Chie Kobayashi
Seiro soba is cold, light-green buckwheat noodles with a soy-sauce-based mixtures.

The most basic option for soba is seiro soba: cold, light-green buckwheat noodles dipped in a soy-sauce-based mixture called tsuyu.

Chie Kobayashi
Window tables overlook a serene garden. i i

Window tables overlook a serene garden. Chie Kobayashi hide caption

itoggle caption Chie Kobayashi
Window tables overlook a serene garden.

Window tables overlook a serene garden.

Chie Kobayashi

Kanda Yabusoba is one of Tokyo's most famous restaurants for soba, or Japanese buckwheat noodles. To its loyal clientele, it is a place for simplicity, genuineness and a return to the gentility of Japan's pre-modern Edo period.

A trip to Yabusoba was traditionally a social and leisurely event, often taking up the better part of an afternoon and revolving around liquor — either sake (brewed rice wine) or shochu, a clear, smooth, distilled liquor made from wheat, buckwheat or rice that, like sake, is served warm or over ice.

The dishes come in small portions, and are seen essentially as accompaniment for the alcohol. The simplest of these is soba miso, a dollop of plum-colored soybean paste. It's eaten mostly for the flavor — just salty enough to make you want more sake. Toasted seaweed is another favorite, as is kamaboko, kidney-shaped pieces of white fish meat and horseradish, which are minced, shaped, steamed and then eaten with soy sauce and green wasabi mustard.

On the sweeter side is the sasimi yuba, which looks like tofu, but is actually the creamy, congealed skin skimmed off a pot of soybean milk. The meatiest of the dishes is kamo rohsu, or slices of roast wild duck with scallions.

As with restaurants in other Asian cuisines, starches here, including noodles, are served last, as if to fill in any empty nooks or crannies in your stomach. The most basic option is seiro soba: cold, light-green buckwheat noodles dipped in a soy-sauce-based mixture called tsuyu. You also can have your soba hot, with raw or cooked egg, with the roasted duck and scallions, with Nameko mushrooms and grated radish, or hot with crispy shrimp tempura.

This restaurant's fare is imitated all over Japan, and being the real deal, it is somewhat pricier than the rest. Dishes range between about $5 and $20; bottles of sake and shochu can run up to about $50.

The menu, among other things, has expanded greatly since Yabusoba was established in 1880. Until the 1970s or so, the restaurant was a bastion of tradition: An unspoken rule barred women guests, and the all-male clientele — which consisted of artisans, Kabuki actors and politicians, often dressed in dark-colored kimonos or suits — expected fellow diners to dip their noodles in the sauce a certain way.

Today, breaches of noodle-eating etiquette no longer draw disdainful glances, and women and families are as welcome as men.

The place is not without rules, though. Guests are requested to go outside to smoke or talk on their cell phones.

Inside, customers sit at knee-high rattan tables. Wood and colored-paper lights decorate the rooms. A pass-through opens onto the clean and busy kitchen. The managers, Mr. and Mrs. Hotta — Mr. Hotta is a fourth-generation descendant of Yabusoba's founders — work the cash register and call out orders to the kitchen in sonorous voices.

The current building, in Tokyo's central Chiyoda district, dates to the 1920s, when it was rebuilt following the Kanto earthquake of 1923. Modern high-rises hem in the traditional building, which is surrounded by a small but beautiful garden of bamboo trees and stone lanterns, giving Yabusoba its name: "The Soba Restaurant Amid the Shrubs."

A meal at Yabusoba is the perfect antidote to a frantic morning of shopping in the gadget emporia of the neighboring Akihabara district. The restaurant evokes nostalgia in many Japanese for the 1603-1867 Edo period, when urbanites had leisure time to enjoy the city's simple pleasures and spend an afternoon drinking and chatting. It is remembered as a time when little acts of civility were the norm: making way for another pedestrian on a narrow street, or a simple smile or nod of the head to acknowledge a fellow citizen.

Kanda Yabusoba — 2-10 Kanda Awaji-cho, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo, Japan. Telephone: 81-3-3251-0287. Open seven days a week, 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., year-round except at new year, at the end of January and during the >Obon, or ancestor worship, festival. In 2008, those dates are Jan. 1-3, Jan. 21-25 and Aug. 11-18. Web site: http://www.norenkai.net/english/shop/yabusoba/index.html.

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