Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Old Ladies, Old Trees & Soba

I have made quite a few old lady friends since moving to Japan. Call me an ageist, but I have spent most of my life hanging out with my peers. It seems this was a huge mistake. Great things happen when you're chillin' with the 50-70 year old crowd. The common denominator seems to be this: amazing food, beautiful off-the-beaten path locations and thoughtful little gifts. Plus, none of them work so they are free to drive me around on my Mondays off. *fist pump*

When one of the women in the cooking class I taught mentioned that her and her husband own a soba restaurant in Hakusan City, a beautiful mountain town about an hour from Kanazawa, I made a squawk about wanting to eat there. Old ladies respond well to squawks. An email was sent. A plan was conceived. A car would pick me up in front of the meat shop on Monday at noon.

So that's how the post-menopausal posse and I found ourselves in a four-door sedan, winding through the most vivid green valley; past rice paddies, bamboo forests and unruly bushes bright with blossoms. The Spring hillsides represented every imaginable shade of green. It was like porn for Bob Ross. The landscape sent me into a tree hugging trance, and I did something I hardly ever do: I shut the fuck up. While the ladies clucked and laughed and grunted, like only Japanese people do, I gazed sleepily out the window.

Soon enough we arrived at the restaurant, a big old house that has been in the owners' family for generations.

Everything brought to the table was either local, handmade or foraged. Locally grown buckwheat was weaved into half the dishes. We slurped cold, toothsome soba noodles, handmade by the husband that morning, topped with little mushrooms and a snowy mound of grated daikon. We lifted tangles of the brown flecked noodles from the broth and dunked them into gooey mountain potato flavored with wasabi. There was incredibly flavorful local tofu, served cold and topped with scallions and just the slightest drip of soy sauce, "So you can really taste the tofu flavor." Spicy foraged mountain greens were transformed into tempura, so light and barely battered that the leaves shattered between our teeth.

But it was dessert that had me the most intrigued. The wife was responsible for the lovely soba and soy sauce flavored puddings, incredibly creamy little flan-like domes topped with sweet, homemade, soba syrup and toasted buckwheat berries. There were rectangles of buckwheat infused gelatin, the size of business cards, and tiny nubs of homemade caramel flavored with buckwheat and soy sauce.We sipped buckwheat tea and even slurped down the water used to boil the soba noodles, poured out of a little tea pot and seasoned with salt.

It was a meal that represents everything I love about Japanese food. Not only was it fresh, local and handmade, but it was prepared according to tradition and with purpose. It fills your belly just enough, so that you are neither hungry nor food coma full. It's composed of several small dishes, offering a variety of textures and temperatures. Chopsticks force you to eat slowly, to eat one mushroom at a time, to enjoy the flavors and contemplate your next bite.

Our bellies full of buckwheat, we took off down the road to find an old cedar tree, planted by monks 1,200 years ago. The restaurant owners told us the tree will "give you power." The cedar's massive trunk was covered in a soft carpet of moss, and the bark was cracked into a thousand puzzle pieces. It's fat, burly limbs stretched out in every direction. The ladies stopped their chatter, pressed their palms to the moss and closed their eyes. After circling the tree several times, running my hands along the soft green fuzz and squishy bark, I found myself doing the same. Silly as it sounds, I felt the power. I made a wish on the tree, and rubbed it's 1,200 year old skin like a genie's lamp. Five women, ages 30 to 74, holding up a giant cedar tree with our 10 outstretched palms.


  1. Nice description of Japanese food, prepared according to tradition and with purpose. Totally get it.

  2. And what wish did you make when you rubbed the giant 1200-yr-old cedar phallus, RBK?

  3. Chaz Chaz Chaz...such an amateur wish maker you must be. Everyone knows if you tell it won't come true. Wish Making 101, my friend.