Japan from the inside out

Shogatsu: Stretching soba over to the new year in Japan

Posted by ampontan on Monday, December 31, 2007

ONE THING IS CERTAIN: At some time over the course of New Year’s Eve, most Japanese will eat a dish of toshikoshi (year-crossing) soba, or buckwheat noodles. The long-established custom of eating soba on the evening of 31 December derives from the hope that it will extend a family’s health and fortune over to the coming year.


Someone has to fill the demand for all that soba, and one company up to the task is San Shokuhin of Itoman, Okinawa Prefecture, which shifted to 24-hour operation on the 28th with 180 employees, nearly half again their usual number. Until early this morning they kept the conveyor belt running while everyone was busy packing boxes with the freshly made, air-cooled product.
Over those four days they produced enough noodles for an estimated 700,000 meals, 80% of which will be consumed in the prefecture.

It’s reported that when people in Okinawa began eating toshikoshi soba on New Year’s Eve, they slurped down the variety from the main islands. They started switching to the Okinawan variety circa 1974, however, and that type became the established custom around 1982.

Hokkaido Hoedown

For an idea just how much soba means to the Japanese everywhere in the country, let’s jump from the far south in Okinawa to the scene in the second photo in the far north—the Sengen district of Fukushima-cho, Hokkaido.


The photo shows a scene of junior high school girls serving as miko, or shrine maidens, as they perform the local Matsumae kagura, a Shinto dance, to the accompaniment of taiko drums and flutes before an audience of about 200 in a 2.5-hectare field of white soba. The performance was staged as an offering for peace and an abundant harvest.

The community became involved in growing soba as a way to promote the local economy, and the Matsumae Kagura Preservation Society presents six types of the Shinto dances on a temporary stage in the soba fields early every autumn. This year’s performance was the sixth.

Sorry to run off so abruptly, but I’ve got a bowl of soba waiting!

7 Responses to “Shogatsu: Stretching soba over to the new year in Japan”

  1. Peter Pan said

    Fun fact about Soba in Okinawa … It’s not actually Soba. Okinawan soba isn’t made from buckwheat but from flour; it’s really just a thick noodle ramen. It’s also eaten like ramen with pork meat (however that too is Okinawan style, not the more common chasiu/chaashuu you find in ramen in the rest of the country as well as in China) and vegetables thrown in for color. ‘Officially’, soba has to be 1/3 buckwheat (if memory serves me right) which should disqualify Okinawa soba, but in order to be said that soba is eaten throughout all Japan, it was decided that Okinawan soba would be specially considered soba when Okinawa was returned to Japan in the early 70’s. Interestingly enough though, the people of Okinawa always referred to it as soba without really noticing that it’s not soba at all by the mainland definition. In order to avoid confusion with soba in the rest of Japan, it was also decided that it would no longer be called soba but Okinawa soba.

    Which really makes my head explode. First, it’s no soba, so they just decide that it will be called soba. BUT, in all reality it’s not soba, so they have to put a prefix on it as so not to confuse anyone. So how does the initial purpose of this whole game of making it so that all of Japan eats soba get met? Beets me. But personally, I’m not a fan of that buckwheat taste, so I’ve always preferred Okinawa soba.

  2. ampontan said

    PP: Great information!

    Once, when I was an English teacher, I conducted a survey of my high school and adult students to find out which they liked better, udon or soba. Udon was the clear winner.

    On the other hand, I love soba, and think udon is just OK. That might be because of all the homemade egg noodles I ate growing up due the eastern European background of my family.

    I watched a shop owner make udon noodles once, and it’s the same thing, but without the eggs.

  3. bender said

    Soba is used for two meanings. One is “buckwheat”, so anything made from buckwheat is called soba or soba-something. Like sobagaki, sobabouro, etc. Soba can also be used to mean noodles in general, so you see shinasoba for ramen and even itaria-soba, which means “spaghetti”. Oh, don’t forget yakisoba.

    So it must be that when Okinawans say soba, it means their soba, not soba you see in “Yamato”. I guess it’s like the sake/shochu stuff. I heard that if I say “I want sake” in Kyushu, you get shochu- you have to say “give me nihonshu”- correct me if I’m wrong.

    See also:蕎麦

    Once, when I was an English teacher, I conducted a survey of my high school and adult students to find out which they liked better, udon or soba. Udon was the clear winner.

    Where did you conduct the survey? It’s sometimes noted that people from Western/Southern Japan prefers udon over soba, and people from Eastern/Northern Japan vice versa. I also believe Tokyo(Edo) is traditionally the soba central of Japan. The best kind of soba is to be found in Tokyo.

    P.S.: Just checked the Japanese wiki for “udon” and they say that the above notion of east soba/west udon is, though popular, not necessarily accurate.うどん

  4. ampontan said

    The survey was conducted in Saga, where I conduct everything!

    Ordering sake in Okinawa and Kagoshima will probably get you shochu. Maybe Miyazaki too, but I’m not sure. Everywhere else, it gets you nihonshu, definitely in Fukuoka-Saga-Nagasaki, and most likely Kumamoto and Oita too.

  5. ponta said

    I am from Tokyo and I like soba better than Udon. But I like Sinsyuu(nagano prefecture) soba better than Edo(Tokyo) soba.

  6. hdr said

    I know for new years Okinawans eat soba like crazy!

  7. john k said

    After being crushed at the Inari shrine in Kyoto for my hatsu-mode, I felt as small and crushed a sparrow…which was just as well as we all tucked into local suzume and uzura ….plenty of soba about, not much udon. Were very tired when we all got home so I whimped out this year and bought noodles, rather than making my own. Only a hand full of fresh soba left. All shops in and around Nara have sold out of soba, plenty of udon left though….

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