Asakusa in Taito ward - Tokyo's east end - is home to one of the metropolis's most famous temples, Sensoji, and one of its most famous soba noodle shops, Namiki Yabu Soba. Sensoji is always flocked with tourists, mainly from within Japan, but numerous overseas tourists too.
While the big, bold temple with its vermillion gates and famous five-story pagoda is the central tourism draw, the whole area exudes the kind of atmosphere that is just right for sightseeing: a feel of Tokyo as it used to be, with shops selling traditional Japanese foods, snacks, sweets, toys, clothing, decorations and ornaments.
Right in front of Sensoji Temple is busy, too, with rickshaw pullers at its Kaminarimon Gate soliciting tourists to be taken around the district for a few minutes in the style of an old monied resident of Tokyo and take in the sights.
Traditional Japanese food is available everywhere in Asakusa, and it was at one of the most famous restaurants in Asakusa, Namiki Yabu Soba that I met up with an old friend on the weekend.
Soba, a thin brown, buckwheat noodle, is one of the three most popular kinds of noodle in Japan, the other two being the thick, somewhat chewy udon and the Chinese-inspired raamen. While raamen is always served hot, soba and udon can be served either hot or cold.
Soba is traditionally associated with east Japan (typified by Tokyo) and udon with west Japan (Osaka). Soba comes in three main varieties, each served by one of three different "schools" of soba restaurant after which each variety takes its name:
-yabu (藪)soba, of the kind I and my friend ate at Namiki Yabu Soba. Yabu soba is the thickest of the three sobas, and the stock is also the strongest in terms of flavor. Yabu soba is traditionally associated with the working class in Japan. Being yabu, this is what Namiki Yabu Soba serves.
-sarashina (更科) soba is quite different from yabu soba in being made of quite fine strands and having a stock with a refined, delicate flavor. Sarashina soba is therefore associated with the upper classes.
-sunaba (砂場) soba is halfway between yabu and sarashina, being of medium thickness and flavor and, as far as I know, is therefore not particularly associated with any social class.
I had to wait for my friend for a few minutes, so, being mid-winter, I followed the lead of the old guy sitting across from me and ordered atsukan - a small flask of warmed sake - just to first thaw out. My friend was delighted by my choice and, while we were sipping on it deciding what to order, told me that in Japan the soba-ya (soba shop) was traditionally the place to do most of your drinking in Japan, moreso than the traditional pub, or izakaya. The soba-ya was where mom and pop did their familiar tippling, kids often in tow, while the izakaya was more of a special night out.
|Namiki Yabu Soba restaurant, Asakusa, Tokyo (and a queue in front of it)|
Namiki Yabu Soba is less than five minutes walk from the main Kaminarimon Gate of Sensoji Temple. Cross the road in front of the traditional sweet/snack shop on the corner and you'll find it on the right side of the street going going directly away from Sensoji Temple, just past the second set of traffic lights. Look for the white, traditional two-story building with a stone lantern out front.
Namiki Yabu Soba is open 11:30am to 7:30pm every day except Thursday, when it is closed.
Being as famous as it is, Namiki Yabu Soba has an English menu.
Inside Track Japan For Kindle