Soba and sake masters from across Japan serve up specialities in Tokyo
Ahh, there’s little I love to do in Japan more than eat! From sushi to sukiyaki, tempura to takoyaki, and some other yummy yakis (yaki means cooked or fried), the island nation is abundant in unique and delicious speciality dishes. Even with more than 160,000 restaurants in Tokyo, its countless mouths to feed revel in diverse food and drink festivals throughout the year.
First-timers to Japan may not be familiar with soba, but this popular noodle dish is widely available across the country. Soba noodles are made from buckwheat flour and either served hot or cold, with a dipping sauce or in a broth. The flavour of the sauce or broth will depend on the ingredients of each dish, but the noodles themselves have a subtle earthy taste.
Sake on the other hand, I’m sure you’ve heard of. Made from fermented rice, Japan’s iconic wine-like beverage is definitely an acquired taste. While there are various kinds of sake, some dry and acidic, others fresh and sweet, it’s the Marmite of the alcohol world, you either love it or wanna throw up.
Unfortunately, soba and sake aren’t amongst my favourite Japanese things, so I can only suggest that you try them for yourself.
What’s on offer
Soba specialists from across Japan dish out numerous noodley options. You can pick from around 100 kinds of sake, but if that’s a little hardcore for ya, they also offer umeshu, a sickly-sweet plum wine and, of course, good old beer!
Surprisingly, there were only 13 stalls selling soba and 5 selling sake; crazy considering how many people there were.
I picked the shortest line and waited for about 20 minutes, but some looked to take upwards of 40. I sampled some ‘Kake Soba’ all the way from… Tokyo! These noodles are traditionally served in a hot broth, made from dashi (Japanese soup stock), mirin (rice wine) and soy sauce, then finally garnished with green onion. It was sticky day though, so I decided to have them cold. As expected, it was pretty bland and underwhelming, like nutty spaghetti swimming in weak sea water.
There was a spread of standing tables and bench tables, some beneath tents, but you’d be lucky to find a spot to slurp your soba with dignity. You may just have to sulk and slurp by the bins like me instead.
Strangely enough, there were 15 other stalls selling miscellaneous food (2 more than selling soba), some of Japanese origin, like yakisoba, some of not so Japanese origin, like chilli cheese fries.
There were also a few tents selling Japanese bits, such as bowls, blankets and bags.
English Information Available
Usually the lack of English information wouldn’t be such a problem at a festival as you can enjoy the music and soak up the atmosphere, but since the festival is solely about the food and the menus are all only in Japanese, you won’t know what kind of soba or sake you’re having or where they’re from. It’s not ideal.
It’s not bad value for a festival. You can get soba from 700 yen (about £5.10) and sake from 300 (£2.20). Or a beer for 500; no waiting!
It depends how long you spend queueing. You could be there for between half an hour and an hour.
This year’s festival was held for 5 days, from Wednesday 12th to Sunday 16th June. The opening times varied on each day but it’s generally open from the morning until the early evening. Check out the festival website for next year’s schedule.
The event space in Yoyogi Park. It can be a little confusing to find, but Harajuku is the closest station. Use Google Maps to find ‘Yoyogi Park Outdoor Stage’ and then follow the directions.
Should you go in 2020?
It’s not overly exciting to be honest. Once you’re done with your first round of soba and sake, I can’t see you wanting to line up for seconds. There isn’t any music or performances going on, so there really isn’t much reason to stick around.
I think if you want to try soba and sake for the first time, it’s better to do it at a restaurant or izakaya. Usually restaurants in popular tourist areas like Shibuya, Asakusa and Shinjuku will have English menus, but it’s not always the case. At least in a restaurant though, the staff members will probably have a little more time to give you some guidance on what to choose. Even if they don’t know much English, it’s better than just guessing.
However, if you can go to the festival with a Japanese friend or can be bothered to use an app on your phone to translate kanji, then you could check it out. Or sack it off altogether and grab ramen instead!