Banzan Soba - Gentle and nutritious
The Ochiai-Ayashi area is blessed with a wealth of ramen restaurants. There are lots of delicious options, but the wheat-based noodles and oily soup isn't for everyone. Luckily, Japan has another noodle-based treat for you: soba. Soba is buckwheat, which is considered to have many health benefits. It certainly contains lots of iron, and all of the essential amino acids. And great news for anyone with a gluten intolerance – it's gluten-free.
On the road between Rikuzen-Ochiai and Ayashi train stations, near a 7-11 convenience store, is something of a soba specialist. Banzan Soba offers anything and everything made with soba, from noodles to ice-cream to tea. It's a modest-sized restaurant, and everything, including the food, has a very homemade feel.
It never seems particularly busy, which means you can choose where to sit – either on the Japanese tatami with floor cushions, or you can keep your shoes on and watch the TV if you prefer western-style chairs. You also get a good view of the boxes of soba tea that you can buy to take home. It's delicious, but don't just take my word for it – it's served alongside your meal.
There's plenty on the menu, including thick, wheat noodles called udon, but in spring there was only one thing I wanted to try – sakura noodles. Sakura means cherry blossom, and it has a beautifully delicate pink color that is passed on to the noodles. It doesn't affect the taste much, though, so you can dip them as usual into the fishy sauce they are served with. On a small plate is some spring onion and wasabi which you can add to the sauce, and in a wonderful surprise, the wasabi is both real, and freshly grated. You can tell from the fragrance and less aggressive “spice”.
You may find yourself with some sauce left over, but it doesn't have to be wasted. During your meal, a teapot will be brought to your table. It contains soba-yu, the hot water that your noodles were cooked in. It's said to be very good for you, as it contains nutrients which are lost from the soba when they're cooked. You can drink it alone, but many people add it to the left over dipping sauce. Personally, I thought that the sauce lends itself to this very well, since it's not too strong.
In addition to this, I had the more-ish fried soba snacks. They're chewy with a crisp edge, filled with gooey cheese. For dessert, I couldn't resist the soba ice-cream. It was nice to have a change from soft-serve – this one had a powdery texture and the odd ice crystal – and it was delicious. It's sweet, yet more sober than other ice-cream, and not to be missed.
I also recommend the mini chicken katsu don, which had been breaded by hand. Sadly, the curry soba wasn't great – the curry sauce was more spice than flavor.
But overall, Banzan has very gentle food - soba feels wholesome, even when fried, and it's definitely better than white, processed grains. You leave with the self-satisfied feeling of having done something good for yourself.
Photo: Sakura soba with tempura. Photo courtesy of Laura Welch