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The Art of Making Soba

February 7, 2013

This post is late in coming because I was waiting for the pictures. It also needs an introduction of the cast of characters, and therefore will be kind of long. I apologize!

Every Tuesday I leave school as usual and start my weekly journey towards Room’z cafe, which luckily is less than five minutes from the school. However, I always stop in the playground to chat with some of the neighborhood guys who show up after school to kick a soccer ball around with or without the students. During my time here in Koga, I’ve gotten to know them pretty well. We carried the 神輿 (mikoshi) together in last year’s summer festival and in December we were on the same team for the 提灯竿もみまつり (chouchinsao momi matsuri). I’ve come to look forward to our weekly chats, since it’s so funny to watch these three interact with each other.

First there’s Kazu-nii, whose nickname means “Big Brother Kazu.” Everybody in the neighborhood calls him this, from the elementary students to a fair amount of the adults. I only recently learned what his real name is, and I’ve known him for months! He’s the oldest, and has one of those faces that makes it difficult to tell his age. He likes to tell everyone he’s 27, but he looks older than that and I have it on good account he’s lying. He attended TES (Tuesday Elementary School) when he was a kid and now works at his family’s tofu shop, which is a five minute walk from the school.

Next is Kazuki, who still lives in Koga but is currently attending college elsewhere. Since I’ve met him, his hair has been a brilliant shade of orange and every time I see him it’s in a different style. He’s studied a fair amount of English but when I first met him he was so shy that he hardly spoke to me. We’ve gotten to know each other since then, and while our conversations are mostly in Japanese there are times where I’ll be stuck on trying to understand a certain word and he’ll try to use the English equivalent. He and Kazu-nii are relatives. If I understood their explanation correctly, they are second cousins.

The last and youngest of this crazy trio is Kenta, who is in his first year of high school. He’s half-Japanese and half-Bangladeshi, and his father owns one of the best curry restaurants in Koga (at least in the ALTs’ opinion). He’s always energetic and smiley and ends up being the butt of many jokes — mostly because his reactions are so hilarious. Out of the three he’s the most unreserved when talking to me, which is something I appreciate and enjoy.

Now that we have our cast of characters, let’s get into the story. One Tuesday at the beginning of last month I stopped by the playground to chat with the boys when Kazu-nii asked if I would be interested in learning how to make soba. Apparently he knew someone who was an expert at making soba and was willing to teach anyone interested in learning. Kazu-nii thought that I would be interested, and mentioned me to the soba master who quickly agreed to a lesson if I was able to. He also said to invite any more ALTs who might want to learn how to make soba. Courteney and I decided to give it a try, and showed up at Kazu-nii’s tofu shop early one Saturday for our lesson. Kenta and Kazu-nii were already there, but Kazuki was nowhere to be found and he wasn’t answering his cell.

After fifteen minutes or so, one more person came to learn how to make soba: Shimizu-sensei, who works at a kindergarten that takes trips to the playground at TES after school so the kids can run around and burn off energy. We had talked on the playground a few times, and the week before making soba I asked if she was also going to the soba lesson. She was, and apparently she really looked forward to learning to make soba with Courteney and I.

At 11:00 the soba master showed up and we got to business. It was cold in the tofu shop, so we bundled up and watched him demonstrate the process. First you add water to a special type of buckwheat flour until it’s wet enough that it will stick together when pressed but dry enough that it won’t stick to your hands — a delicate balance, let me tell you! Too much water got added to my dough, so I had to stop many times to scrape the dough off of my hands. Then you knead the air out of the dough as much as you can, flatten the dough out, and then take a long rolling pin to it to make it as thin as possible without tearing holes in the dough. The last step is to fold and cut the dough into strips. Stick it in a pot of boiling water for two minutes, and you have soba ready to eat!

We watched the demonstration as closely as we could, but it was all too soon when we were left to our own devices. There were only two work spaces, so Courteney and I went first. Kenta was my assistant, which mostly consisted of talking to me while I worked and making sure that I wasn’t straying too far off course. Kazuki was supposed to be Courtney’s assistant, but Shimizu-sensei took over that role as she waited her turn to make soba. Kazu-nii traveled between our two stations in order to take pictures.

Since pictures speak a thousand words, I’ll let them do the talking.

Watching the demonstration.From L-R: Kenta, Courteney, Shimizu-sensei, and me.

Watching the demonstration.
From L-R: Kenta, Courteney, Shimizu-sensei, and me.

Kneading the dough.

Kneading the dough.

Kneading the dough.

Kneading the dough.

Rolling out the dough.

Rolling out the dough.

Rolling out the dough.

Rolling out the dough.

Courteney quickly understood the cutting technique...

Courteney quickly understood the cutting technique…

... while I needed just a little more instruction.

… while I needed just a little more instruction.

But I think I got it.

But I think I got it.

From L-R: Kazuki, Kenta, me, Courteney, and Shimizu-sensei

From L-R: Kazuki, Kenta, me, Courteney, and Shimizu-sensei

From L-R: Kazu-nii, Kazuki, me, Courteney, and Shimizu-sensei

From L-R: Kazu-nii, Kazuki, me, Courteney, and Shimizu-sensei

After we finished cutting the soba, we tossed it into a large pot of water that was boiling behind us, and sat down to a huge lunch of soba, tempura, and soup made from the water left over from boiling the noodles. With impeccable timing, Kazuki finally showed up just as the noodles were cut and about to go into the pot. It turned out he had to rush to school to hand in a sudden assignment. I don’t miss those days at all! Anyway, he had to put up with jokes regarding his skipping the actual work and only eat the final product. He took it all in stride, though.

Making soba was such a fun experience, and it’s amazing how something that looks so simple can be so difficult to make. I hope to have another lesson soon! Fresh soba just can’t be beat. It’s really funny, because the soba master also happens to teach 合気道 (aikido), a form of martial arts, and is pretty interested in taking on foreign pupils! Who knows, maybe I’ll give it a shot sometime. As of right now, however, I’m undecided.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 13, 2013 11:55 PM

    Just wanted to let you know that I’ve always found your blog very inspiring. So inspiring, in fact, that I’d like to nominate you for a Blogger Award! Love the insight you can always give on our outings with your vast knowledge of Asian cultures. I can always learn something new from you! Keep up the good work!
    Please visit my blog to check it out the award 🙂
    Jess Damerst

  2. Alex permalink
    February 15, 2013 2:53 PM

    Hi! My name is Alex and I was offered Koga as a placement through Interac. I happened to stumble upon your blog and I was wondering if I could ask you a few questions about daily life there? Would it be possible to email you? Please let me know. Thanks!!


    • Carolyn permalink*
      February 17, 2013 2:57 AM

      Of course! I’ll send you an e-mail and we’ll talk. 🙂

    • Carolyn permalink*
      February 18, 2013 2:45 AM

      Well, I thought I could e-mail you, but I guess I can’t! Send me a message at and I’ll do my best to answer your questions!

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