Nagano has been known since ancient times as Shinano or Shinshu. It is home to 3,000 meter mountains in the south and north, and pure streams from the mountains have formed a variety of terrains, including valleys and deltas. Being inland, Nagano has no sea, but its natural environment that more than compensates the lack of sea has spawned quality agricultural products, and various edible plants from the mountains and forests that form Nagano’s rich food culture. Nagano is renowned for countless local products including apples, grapes, highland vegetables, wasabi, chestnuts, wine and sake. The most representative of all is none other than Shinshu soba (buckwheat) noodles.
Taste buds sharpened to perfection: Master of Shinshu soba noodles
Because of its high elevation, cold climate and barren land, Nagano had long engaged in buckwheat farming because these conditions were not suited to rice farming. The big temperature fluctuations between morning and evening helped buckwheat bear plenty of fruit, and Nagano’s cold water was also perfect for tightening noodles after cooking. Buckwheat is still widely grown across Nagano, bearing beautiful white flowers in the autumn every year, which has become part of Nagano’s signature landscape.
Hearing that there is a great soba noodle master in Nagano, who has inherited the traditions of Shinshu soba-making, yet exploring new possibilities, we visited a buckwheat studio in the city of Nagano.
Shinshu Togakushi Soba is a famous Shinshu soba company established in 1967, having once been a wholesaler for soba noodles served at various locations including the guesthouses in Zenkoji Temple. The company carefully selects quality buckwheat flour from all over Japan, not just limited to Nagano, and manufactures several dozen products including dry, fresh and gift noodles.
The company’s third-generation successor is Shinya Koide. He is a master Shinshu Soba craftsman, having passed the national noodle-making craftsmanship exam with top scores in Nagano. Having developed a keen sense for identifying soba quality, and high skills after years of experience, he has developed a number of different kinds of high-quality soba noodles.
Koide said, “Since I was young, I lived right next to a soba studio with a lingering scent of buckwheat flour. I grew up watching the back of my grandfather as he made soba. Maybe my sense for soba started to develop in those days.”
After joining the company at 21, he actively imitated and acquired his predecessors’ movements and skills, and studied different types of buckwheat from around Japan whenever he had time. To be the best at his craft and to keep his taste buds sensitive, Koide has not even eaten anything with chemical seasonings for over 20 years.
Koide developed two new products especially for E-ZEY JAPAN: Sarashina soba, and matcha soba.
Sarashina soba refers to the soba noodle made only with the “first flour,” gained by removing the black husks of buckwheat fruit using only the middle part. Usually, one ton of buckwheat fruit yields about 600 kilograms of buckwheat flour including black husks, but for sarashina soba, the yield is only about 100 kilograms. It is rare, and it takes time. Koide uses first flour from Horokanai, Hokkaido, which he fell in love with. Just like Nagano, Horokanai has a climatic condition that is suited to buckwheat farming. Allegedly, frequent morning fog makes for tasty buckwheat fruit with a great aroma, color and firmness.
Made with the buckwheat flour from Horokanai, Ako salt and carefully selected wheat, Koide’s Sarashina soba is white, pleasantly chewy and smooth when it enters the mouth. It tastes incredibly refined as its soft buckwheat aroma gradually spreads.
A destined encounter with matcha created by a rank-10 tea master
The matcha soba features Senkei No Shiro, an Uji matcha created by tea master Yasuyuki Suda, who has the highest rank-10 certification, which denotes the highest level of tea connoisseurship skills.
When he saw Senkei No Shiro, Koide’s creative drive as a soba craftsman was apparently fired up.
“Unlike the matcha I had been using for tea soba until then, the matcha was bright green, and as soon as I had a lick, it sent a shiver down my spine. I knew this was it. I felt the urge to make a soba using this matcha as soon as I could.”
Senkei No Shiro is a matcha by Suda that fascinates Koide very much.
A certified rank-10 tea master, Suda is a maestro of tea, able to distinguish and identify different tea leaves and create the ideal flavor he is looking for. Senkei No Shiro is a matcha he developed to be used in tea soba and confectioneries. To derive the three essential elements of matcha—which are good taste, color and bitterness—he blended three different matchas from different fields and of different varieties to create this supreme matcha.
Koide experimented many times to see how much Senkei No Shiro matcha to pair with the first Horokanai flour he had used for Sarashina soba. Eventually he developed a matcha soba with an unprecedentedly rich flavor.
“I don’t think there is just one answer for making soba. I want to freely combine ingredients and flour and make our customers happy with the soba I find tasty. I want people who are not so keen on soba to know that soba is actually tasty.”
Though Koide comes from a famous soba maker’s family and has inherited the tradition of Shinshu soba, he does not stop creating new soba with an active and humble attitude, relying on the sense of taste he has developed.
Gift set showcasing artisan skills of signature noodles from Shinshu and Inaniwa
This time, E-ZEY JAPAN has developed a gift set entitled “Showcase of artisan skills,” with Sarashina and matcha soba by Koide, and Inaniwa udon noodle from Juichi Takahashi, a genuine artisan born and raised in Inaniwa.
Enjoy a moment of bliss with the noodles that boast the skills of craftsmanship from Shinshu and Inaniwa.
Writer : TAICHI UEDA / Photographer : SATOSHI TACHIBANA / Movie : CHIZU TAKAKURA
E-ZEY JAPAN Artisan Mastery Gift Set
Nagano Prefecture Tourism Information