Soba (そば) noodles are noodles made of buckwheat flour, roughly as thick as spaghetti, and prepared in various hot and cold dishes. Soba dishes are very popular and easily available nationwide. As 100% buckwheat soba noodles tend to be brittle, many restaurants add some wheat flour when preparing their noodles. Depending on the shop, the percentage of buckwheat flour in soba noodles typically ranges between 40% and 100%.
Note also that there are a few noodle dishes named soba (e.g. yakisoba, chukasoba or Okinawa Soba) that are not made with buckwheat noodles. More often than not, however, "soba" refers to buckwheat noodles.
The most basic soba dish is mori soba in which boiled, cold soba noodles are eaten with a soya based dipping sauce (tsuyu). Many soba dishes are eaten throughout the year, while others are only available seasonally. A special kind of soba dish is Toshikoshi Soba, a symbol of longevity, that is only eaten on New Year's Eve.
Like pasta, soba noodles are available in dried form in supermarkets, but they taste best if freshly made by hand from flour and water. Soba making has long been a popular hands-on activity for domestic and international travelers. The activity is offered by many craft villages and travel tour companies.
Cutting freshly made soba
Popular soba dishes
Soba can be served either hot or cold. Below are some of the more common varieties tourists will encounter. Note that some dishes are known under different names depending on the region.
Where to eat soba
Soba is easily available nationwide at specialized soba restaurants which often also have udon noodles on their menu. But soba dishes are also a common menu item at eateries around tourist spots, family restaurants or izakaya. The dining out section explains what to expect inside a sit-down restaurant in Japan.
At some busy train stations, standing soba restaurants can be found for a quick meal between train rides. Ordering at standing restaurants is as simple as buying your meal ticket from the vending machine, giving it to the staff and enjoying your noodles while standing at the counter.
Simple soba noodle dishes typically cost between 500 yen and 1000 yen, while more elaborate dishes or special soba meal sets are usually priced from 1000 yen to 1500 yen.
A typical standing soba shop at a train station
How to eat soba
Depending on how your soba are served, the way of eating differs:
Soba served in a soup (usually the hot ones) are enjoyed by using your chopsticks to lead the noodles into your mouth while making a slurping sound. The slurping enhances the flavors and helps cool down the hot noodles as they enter your mouth. The broth is drunk directly from the bowl, eliminating the need for a spoon. It is not considered rude to leave some unfinished soup in the bowl at the end of the meal.
For soba that are served with a dipping sauce (usually the cold ones), there are a few more steps before you can enjoy them. First, mix some of the green onions and wasabi into the dipping sauce. Then take a few strands of soba noodles and dip them into the sauce before eating them.
If your soba were served with a dipping sauce, some soba restaurants will give you a little teapot (see photo to the right) towards the end of the meal that is filled with what looks like hot cloudy water. This is sobayu, the water that the soba noodles were cooked in. Sobayu is meant to be poured into your remaining dipping sauce after you have finished your noodles. This is how you can finish your dipping sauce by drinking this mixture and adjusting the amount of sobayu as you prefer.
Zaru soba, the cup of dipping sauce is below the condiments
Regional Soba Dishes
While soba can be easily found all over Japan, soba tends to be more popular in rural areas, and especially in regions where the soil is suitable for growing buckwheat. Soba produced in some regions are more famous than others. Nagano Prefecture and Yamagata Prefecture, for example, are well-known for their soba.