Wanko Soba: Food Culture of Iwate with a Dash of Entertainment
You might already know about soba, the buckwheat noodles of Japanese cuisine, but have you heard of wanko soba? Today, we’re going to introduce this wonderful way of dining on soba sure to make for a great outing with friends.
What is Wanko Soba?
A type of food tradition originating in Iwate Prefecture (Morioka and Hanamaki in particular), wanko soba is now an established item of regional cuisine. The diner eats a succession of mouthful-sized bowls (“wan”) of hot soba while building up a good rhythm, where “wanko soba” refers to both the dish itself and this manner of eating.
A Brief History of Wanko Soba
In the area around Morioka and Hanamaki, there was a tradition of everyone coming together to eat soba in a big group whenever there was an event like a festival. However, the crowds would get so big that enough soba couldn’t be prepared for everyone all at once, so by the time enough was boiled for everyone, the noodles from the first batch would already be soggy. The solution that they hit upon was serving up the soba in mouthfuls at a time. By doing this, the next batch of soba could be prepared while the diners were eating their own small serving of soba. In fact, because it focuses on wanting people to eat something at its most delicious, you could say that the start of this tradition reflects “omotenashi,” the spirit of Japanese hospitality.
How it Works
Wanko soba is a tag-team effort between diner and kyūji, the attendant waiter. Once you’ve finished off the soba in your bowl, the kyūji will say “Hai, jan-jan” (a kind of encouragement to eat) and hand you your next serving in a flash. When you don’t want to eat anymore, match the timing of the flow and stick the lid on your bowl. If you don’t, the next serving of soba will already be in your bowl, and you won’t be able to retire just yet. The rapid-fire give-and-take between you and the kyūji is really quite enjoyable and makes up one of the attractions of wanko soba. Though the system may seem at first to be strong-arming the diner into eating and eating, in truth its roots lie with an ancient part of Japanese culture and etiquette in which refills of food are given even if the guest can’t actually eat anymore.
You won’t get tired of eating wanko soba, either, as it comes with a huge variety of toppings and garnish, including sashimi, nameko mushrooms with grated daikon, white sesame, green onions, green perilla, dried nori/seaweed, and pickled vegetables, to name a few. Use these toppings well, and you can enjoy dozens of different combinations, which will help you eat heaps of soba.
The National Wanko Soba Tournament
Owing to the nature of this dining custom, now wanko soba is associated in many minds with speed-eating and other eating contests. Every year on February 11 in Hanamaki City, the National Wanko Soba Tournament is held, which draws boastful big-eaters from across the nation. Until now, the grand record is an incredible 559 bowls. Given that there’s about 15 bowls in a regular serving of soba, this equates to around 37 servings.
Famous Wanko Soba Shops in Iwate
1. Azumaya, Morioka City
Founded in 1907, this restaurant has both its main shop and a branch shop near the south exit of Morioka Station, making it perfect for enjoying wanko soba before you ride the Shinkansen.
2. Chokurian, Morioka City
Founded in 1884, this is the oldest shop in Morioka.
3. Yabuya, Hanamaki City
Founded in 1923, this shop operates in the Hanamaki style, which means that the attendant kyūji doesn’t shout with each serving.
A Few Tokyo Shops for Enjoying Wanko Soba
1. Tachibana, Yokohama, Kanagawa
2. Wanko Soba Daigo, Asakusa, Tokyo
Enjoy Hands-on Food Tourism!
Wanko soba is generally set at a flat rate per meal, regardless of how many bowls you eat. How many do you reckon you could put back? Because you’re able to take your time and eat at leisure, be sure to stop by one of these shops then tell us how many you finished off!