Master of Soba

Along a narrow lane in Yokohama, we duck under a low doorway hung with three banners and step into a tiny restaurant. The owner, Masaki Imahgahsi, bows to us in greeting. Foreigners rarely visit his restaurant, but he is a friend and neighbor of our guide, Chris, who arranged this special visit.

Wearing a white headscarf and an apron dusted with buckwheat flour Masaki is in the final stages of making soba noodles from scratch. We crowd around the opening to a tiny side room where he rolls out the dough, time and again, until it is the perfect thickness. Then, with Zen like focus and a knife that cost over a thousand dollars, he cuts it into strips of a precise width.

Soba noodles aren’t your ordinary pasta: they hold an elevated status in Japan, believed to detoxify the body and the soul. And Masaki is a soba master. He spent ten years learning this ancient craft. Soba, he tells us, is his passion.

“Finished!” he announces, gently arranging the noodles on a tray and carrying them through to the kitchen.

I expected lunch to be ‘just’ a bowl of noodles. But no, this is Japan, where food is art, where each ingredient is treated with respect, love and attention to the finest detail.

A tray is set before me with a plate of tempura made from vegetables foraged in a forest. It is accompanied by a delicate dipping sauce and condiments: several types of steamed mushroom, fresh wasabi, grated daikon and slivers of Japanese long onion. On a flat basket are several skeins of cooled soba noodles. They are perfect: fresh, nutty, smooth and comforting. I learn how to dip and slurp them. When I am almost finished Masaki adds some of the soba cooking water to the sauce, creating a delicate soup to end the lunch.

This simple lunch was at the very start of this trip in Japan. Since then we have kayaked on the Izu Coast, attended a special blessing ceremony in a Shinto shrine, walked through forests of bamboo and exquisite gardens, learned the secrets of growing wasabi from an 8th generation farmer, gazed across rice fields to majestic Mt Fuji, soaked in hot spring pools, rode the bullet train, arranged flowers under the tutelage of an Ikebana sensei, and savored Japan’s refined cuisine in a series of increasingly complex, multi course and downright amazing meals. Shot through it all have been the elements we first saw in Masaki’s little restaurant: artistry, patience, elegance, commitment and respect for beauty.

 

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