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Stand and slurp at Tokyo's railway noodle bars
To slurp or not to slurp -- that definitely isn't the question when you're sucking it up like a local
First things first -- noisy slurping when downing your soba, udon, or ramen in Japan is all part and parcel of enjoying your noodles the way the locals do.
Call it authentic bad manners if you like.
The problem for many visitors is that no matter how long they stay, the “skill” required to slurp noodles is something they can never quite master.
It’s a back of the mouth thing, quite unlike the front of the mouth soup slurping frowned upon in the West.
Yet, whether or not you find yourself up to the challenge of slurping, the soba or udon noodles millions turn to daily in Japan are a “must eat” on any trip to the country. Here’s the lowdown.
What it is
Soba are, in large part, made from buckwheat and tend to be thinner than many other noodle varieties in Japan, while the wheat-flour-based udon more often than not constitute a much thicker form.
They’re similar in the mouth to the feel of worms in the experience of this ex-military, survival-trained writer -- I’m a much bigger fan of the soba variety as a result.
And, as with so much in Japan, geography plays a part in local culinary favorites.
To that end -- while exceptions exist -- soba reigns supreme in the east of Japan, while in the west udon restaurants far outnumber their soba relations.
Indeed, Japan’s smallest prefecture -- Kagawa-ken in Shikoku -- known for its sanukui udon -- has even tried to have its name changed to Udon-ken. True.
So, with a nod of the head to the success of udon in the west of the country, let’s take a look at a the kind of noodle joint most visitors to Japan will first encounter -- Tokyo’s railway station soba restaurants.
All our picks can be found smack bang on the Yamanote Line --Tokyo’s light-green lifeline for all newcomers and more than a few old-timers.
All open early -- well before lunch, many as early as 7 a.m. -- to get those headed to work, and close only around 10 p.m. or 11 p.m.
If that sounds a little vague, consider this. When asked their operating hours, two store operators answered, “when we get here” and “depends on the day.”
None offers telephone numbers and reservations are never required. At least that part’s simple enough. And, unless specified, most bowls of noodles will set you back about ¥500 (US$6).
Shinjuku, Soba Dokoro
Now offering a mixture of seats and standing, in part as a result of increased numbers of female diners, Soba Dokoro is something you would rarely see a decade ago -- a soba joint that isn’t frequented exclusively by harried men in crumpled suits.
The prepaid ticket machine outside is simple, with photos of the choices making selection easy for even the most limited of Japanese speakers.
Staples include tsukimi, tempura and wakame kelp-topped noodles -- udon as well as soba -- and the perennial favorite in Japanese households as the weather turns colder, curry rice.
For the particularly peckish the set meals combining a small bowl of curry rice and a regular-sized soba dish of your choice are great value for around ¥600.
Where: Head to the South Exit, top of the stairs leading down to the Yamanote Line -- platform 15. You can’t miss it.
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Ikebukuro, Hayagui Bimi
It’s standing-only in Hayagui Bimi, and shoulder-to-shoulder at that with lines outside attesting to the low price/quality combo.
This oddly named soba shop on the east side of Ikebukuro’s maze-like station concourse is well worth seeking out if you’re in the area.
Cramped to say the least, this is a place to enter, eat and exit to make way for the next customers.
Real Japanese business culture at unreal Japanese prices.
The tempura soba here is better than at most places, as is the cold zaru soba with a tangy dipping sauce and wasabi in the summer.
Slurp up and get out, lest those waiting become disgruntled.
Where: Head out the East Exit ticket gates on your way to street level. Hayagui Bimi is on your left, opposite a florist.
Takadanobaba, Kisoba Irorian Kiraku
A hugely popular place with the students from nearby Waseda University, another bizarrely named soba spot offers up the best katsudon in the city in the opinion of this frequent visitor.
Otherwise, the chikuwa fish paste tempura served with soba really hits the spot on colder days when covered in the ever-present shichimi seven-spice mix. It’s the one that looks just like chili powder.
Prices start low for the tsukimi soba option, with its freshly cracked raw egg floating atop a bowel of noodles.
Where: Inside the main JR station concourse station as you depart via the Waseda Dori Exit -- next to the convenience store.
Nishi Nippori, Oedo Soba
Oedo is a chain found at a number of stations, particularly in northern Tokyo. This particular branch is pretty basic, and the menu is much what you would expect in such a simple soba place.
Seats are lacking, as this restaurant is more about function than pleasing the eye. It’s definitely one to sample on the go, without looking at your surroundings.
That said, it’s not a bad range for the yen required -- again, prices start around ¥500.
The usual offerings abound and are not quite as the images outside would paint them, but the wakame-topped soba is a good way to cure a hangover and, apparently, it helps in reducing cholesterol.
Where: Just inside the JR ticket gates at street level, opposite the steps down to the Chiyoda Subway Line.
Nippori, Oedo Soba
Yes -- same name, different place. Same offerings to boot, and at the same prices This branch of Oedo is worth a quick mention simply because it's in one of the main stations linking Narita Airport with Tokyo proper.
You’ve no excuse to skip the standing soba experience now, but watch out for the dripping air-conditioner in summer -- it’s next to the water dispenser.
Where: On the Yamanote Line platform for Ikebukuro and Shibuya -- midway between the North Exit and connection to the Joban Line.
Shimbashi workers after soba will rarely find better than Azumi.
The menu offers the regular line up at such establishments -- ne’er a chair to be seen, by the way -- and the restaurant can get very crowded at lunchtime.
Aim to visit before noon or after 2 p.m. and you should manage to squeeze in. Unusually, the service here actually does come with a smile -- not at all common in the rush, rush world of standing soba.
Where: Right outside the Karasumori Exit (South Exit). Head to your left. Azumi is on the right, 20 meters from the ticket gates.
Shimbashi, Sanuki Udon Shokunin
In many ways, Sanuki is the polar opposite to Azumi, even if it is at the same station.
Seated throughout -- fixed in position like most fast-food joints -- and with udon, plus tempura toppings of veggies, fish and chicken making up almost the entire menu, the pace at Sanuki is somewhat slower.
Order from the different forms of udon you like the look of and walk along the counter to add your own tempura toppings. Prices are calculated at the end of the counter.
Where: Start out for Azumi, but after exiting the same ticket gates turn right and it is on your left opposite a kiosk.
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