As much as I love good food, I wouldn't normally take an hour-and-a half express train ride just to eat soba. However, this Sunday was the field trip for my sake class, with the destination a soba shop called Koike, out in Chichibu, Saitama.
Apparently this is a well-known shop among soba connoisseurs, although it certainly doesn't look like much from the outside. Inside, there are four tables that seat four people a piece, plus a tatami area that can seat about 12 comfortably. The menu is strips of paper tacked up above the counter, and consists basically of just soba, udon, and tempura. (Koike-san also has a fairly nice assortment of sake, not surprisingly.)
Given the time of year, the soba harvest has just finished, and we got to have "new" soba. Normally, Koike-san uses a blend of different soba flours, but for this event we tried three types of soba, each using soba from a different location, in order to see the difference between noodles even when you're working with ostensibly the same ingredients.
In short, it was a fairly mind-altering experience. I'd never watched someone making soba from scratch, rolling out the dough and cutting the noodles, except on TV, and it was impressive. Koike-san uses no fillers in making the dough-just soba flour and water, which is apparently quite rare nowadays. The soba itself was unlike anything I'd ever had before-a much more delicate flavor and aroma. We tried all three in succession, with the first a soba from Fukui where the soba plants had been harvested by machine, and the second and third made from soba flour from the Chichibu area, where the plants had been hand-picked and dried naturally. All were zaru soba--boiled, drained, and served on a straw strainer (no broth to interfere with the taste). Could all just be in the mind, but the hand-picked stuff definitely tasted better.
Unfortunately, by the time the third (and best) soba rolled around, we were all quite full of noodles, and it was a bit of work to finish the last helping! We finished off by drinking the water the soba had been boiled in (well, more accurately, using it to dilute the dipping sauce, then drinking that), something I had never previously understood the appeal of, but not surprisingly, good noodles make for tasty water.
If you're a huge soba fan, or you'd like to totally change your thinking about soba, it's worth the trip out from Tokyo. Koike is a short walk from Seibu Chichibu station (the end of the line coming out from Ikebukuro on the Seibu Chichibu line)--go straight out the station to the stop-light, cross the main road, and turn right. If you go back under the railroad tracks, you've gone too far.
It's doable as a day trip, but a fellow classmate and I decided to spend Saturday night at a hot springs ryokan about 30 minutes away called Kayanoya. Although the bath area itself could have been a bit larger, the baths themselves were very nice, and the food was quite good. Overall, a nice weekend getaway.