1. one who is filled with enthusiasm; one who is ardently absorbed in an interest or pursuit: a baseball enthusiast.
2. a zealot; a fanatic.
Enthusiasts – they exist for just about anything; wine, football, motorbikes, Startrek, bands, collectables – you name it and there’s someone out there who follows it with gusto… some more so than others.
Enter, Mr. Ito, charismatic soba noodle enthusiast and founder of the Edo Sobauchi Kyoushitsu (Edo Soba School) . Before Mr. Ito, I’d never met a noodle enthusiast and if I’m honest, I’ve met very few enthusiasts of anything who follow their interest with the fervor and passion that Mr. Ito exhibits for the humble soba (buckwheat) noodle. This soon-to-be octogenarian eats, breathes, talks and teaches soba on a daily basis (I’m pretty sure he counts soba noodles as a separate, and perhaps the only, food group). His love for soba transcends all language barriers and extends across decades during which he worked as a very successful soba chef until opening a soba school in his house some years ago.
I came into contact with Mr. Ito when I visited his soba school in the residential area of Koiwa. I instantly warmed to him (he reminded me of my grandpa) and in the 2 hours that followed, found myself in constant stitches of laughter brought on by Mr. Ito, who is undoubtedly one of the funniest characters I’ve met in my travels to date.
Armed with only a whiteboard and a marker, a jovial Mr. Ito began the class with a 45-minute lesson on the history of soba noodles… in Japanese. My guide, Tatsuya, raced to keep up the translation of this in-depth lesson that was laced with anecdotes, jokes and information on the all-important buckwheat to wheat ratio (8:2 in favour of buckwheat, I’ll have you know). The lesson also included specifics on the different types of soba noodles (primarily differentiated by the aforementioned ratio, the season in which the wheat harvest takes place and the thickness of noodle cuts) which culminated in an incredibly amusing audio demonstration by Mr. Ito of the sound these different noodles make when being slurped down your throat.
Following the theory component of the class, Mr. Ito demonstrated his well-honed art of noodle making. His hands danced around the bowl as they artfully mixed the perfect amount of water with the perfect amount of buckwheat flour before removing air-bubbles from the mix by carefully kneading the dough into the shape of a flower and then into a cone-like shape, the end of which closely resembled the appearance of… well, as Mr. Ito kindly demonstrated, the appearance of a belly-button.
Through tears of laughter, I watched as Mr. Ito completed the process by flattening the dough with a range of complex rolling techniques and cutting perfectly uniform noodles with a soba kiri – a very scary looking cleaver blade designed specifically for this purpose.
The noodles that I subsequently created, of course, looked like chicken scratchings compared to the mastery produced by Mr. Ito, but when Tatsuya and I sat down for lunch I was slightly chuffed to hear Mr. Ito loudly slurping away on my noodles in the adjoining kitchen. This means he liked them… or at least he pretended to.
Before this class, I’d never given a second thought to soba noodles, but now I know that I will think of these buckwheat creations every time I think of Mr. Ito… which, strangely enough, will be every time I think of belly buttons.