Mr. Kataoka, soba noodle master and owner of Irusaya restaurant in Izushi, Japan // © 2014 Shane Nelson
Feature image (above): Izushi is home to nearly 40 restaurants serving soba, making it a fine destination for a self-guided soba-noodle tour. // © 2014 Thinkstock
Kneeling over a long wooden rolling pin, similar in size to a child’s wiffle ball bat, I was doing my best to evenly spread out a thin oval of buckwheat dough. I had tied on an apron only a few minutes earlier while standing on the second floor of the Irusaya soba noodle restaurant in Izushi, Japan, located about 2.5 hours north from Osaka by train and just a 20-minute bus ride from Toyooka.
There to learn how to make the terrifically flavorful, thin buckwheat noodles in one of the country’s most famous soba destinations, I took up a comfortable position on the ground, cushioned by a thick pillow in front of a large wooden bowl and surrounded by various ingredients, including water and buckwheat flour.
Listening closely to our translator and following the confident, quick-moving example of our soba noodle master — introduced earlier as only Mr. Kataoka — I managed to mix up the flour and water into a reasonably uniform ball. It wasn’t long, however, before the master approached me with a smile, swiftly relieved me of my lopsided sphere and proceeded to expertly craft a proper ball of dough while rapidly incorporating all of the leftover ingredients left in my bowl. I then extended my hand, palm up, and Mr. Kataoka dropped the ball into it again. Giving a gracious smile, he hurried off to help another student in our class of just three visiting journalists.
Properly rolling out the buckwheat dough proved much harder than I originally imagined, and I again received some hands-on help from our instructor, who later folded the dough into a multi-layered bundle. All that was then left to do was to cut up the creation into appropriately sized slices, effectively creating the thin soba noodles.
While there was much discussion about my technique, which was yielding far too thick noodles in the beginning, Mr. Kataoka let me wield the large knife throughout the final step, leaving it entirely up to me to cut my own noodles. I don’t have any problem reporting that the ensuing soba lunch, consisting of the buckwheat noodles I had just made — almost entirely by myself — was one of the finer meals I have ever enjoyed.
In Izushi, soba noodles are traditionally served on small, Izushi-made porcelain dishes, which are about the same diameter as a softball and have been crafted in town for centuries. A key component, of course, is the soba dipping sauce, which varies some from restaurant to restaurant but typically consists of soy sauce and dashi. Wasabi, green onion, yam puree and raw egg can be added to customize the concoction.
Irusaya is actually just one of several soba restaurants in Izushi where visitors can learn to make tasty noodles. Lessons like mine need to be booked through the town’s tourist office and run about $14 per person, as long as you have at least a few folks taking part in the experience.
Additionally, travelers can try their hand at painting a traditional piece of Izushi-yaki, or porcelain, while at several different artisanal shops in town (for about the same price). They then can take home a one-of-a-kind plate or cup as a souvenir.
The town also features the well-known Izushi Castle, which was built in 1604 by a Samurai named Sengoku. Although much of the castle is now gone, visitors can still check out the hilltop Sumi Yagura, or corner tower, that was restored in 1968. The tower offers a terrific view of the picturesque community, still populated by a host of traditional old buildings and narrow streets. In fact, Izushi has such a historic feel that it’s commonly referred to as Little Kyoto.
Folks keen to sample a number of different soba restaurants while in town should purchase a special Izushi-soba pouch for the Eating Izushi-Soba Tour. The pouch contains three Eiraku-tsuho (replicas of ancient coins) that can be exchanged for a generous portion of soba at nearly 40 different establishments in town. The pouch runs about $15 from the Izushi tourism office.