Japan is home to one of the world’s great culinary traditions, and the array of foods to try can seem overwhelming. However, locals consider soba to be a must-eat food during your stay in Izumo. I visited three well-known soba restaurants to find out why.
If you’re not familiar with this gem of Japanese cuisine, soba noodles are made from buckwheat flour in various concentrations. They are chewy with a pleasant earthy taste, and served either hot or cold with a variety of toppings.
I found the soba at all three of the places I visited equally delicious and worth trying. Where the restaurants differed was in the taste of the soba noodles, the atmosphere and location. You can have some soba noodles at the home-like soba shop Arakiya, in a tucked-away private room in Haneya Honten, or at Tanakaya, located next to the entrance of Izumo Taisha Grand Shrine right in the middle of the shrine’s spectacular scenery.
The first place I visited was Arakiya, which was founded over 200 years ago. This soba restaurant is the oldest of its kind in all of Izumo.
According to the staff at Arakiya, Izumo is a great soba-eating destination for the following reasons. First, the soba in Izumo is made using both the inner and outer parts of the buckwheat germ, which yields a darker colour and richer, earthier flavour than the soba in other regions.
Secondly, soba consumption has a long history going back to the Edo Period. Arakiya was on the omotesando, or the trail that worshippers took to Izumo Taisha Grand Shrine.
As it was the place to eat in town back in those days, eating soba was simply something that people did on their trip to Izumo. The restaurant has an English menu with pictures, so placing an order is easy even for foreign guests who don’t understand Japanese.
The soba noodles are made of buckwheat flour which is finely milled and hand-wrought into thin noodles. One of their characteristics is that they have a darker color than most soba.
Izumo soba noodles also have a fresh buckwheat scent and are soft and supple. You can literally feel the noodles as they slowly slide down your throat. Be sure to have a look around the building if you have the time, as it is almost a museum unto itself.
Open : 11:00a.m. ～ 5:00p.m. Closed : Wednesdays "if Wednesday is a national holiday, it will be open for the holiday and closed the following day"
The second soba restaurant I visited was Haneya Honten, which is conveniently located in close proximity to the JR Izumo Station.
Haneya Honten was founded over 100 years ago, in the late Edo period and has a history of providing soba noodles to members of the Imperial family. Soba that got handed out to the Imperial family is called "Kenjo Soba".
When you make your way to the back through a sliding glass door, you’ll find a pleasant and private place to enjoy a helping of Izumo soba. To fully enjoy your noodles, you can ask the staff for a manual on how to eat Izumo soba correctly.
Unfortunately, the restaurant has no English menu available but the friendly staff will help you to choose a dish that suits your taste buds. There are two basic types of noodles available: kamaage-soba, which is served hot, and warigo-soba, served cold in a neat sort of graduated bowl-tower. In other regions of Japan, hot soba is normally served in a bowl of fish broth, but Izumo soba is served with the water used in boiling the soba, which makes for a thicker and starchier broth. Extra soba sauce (called soba tsuyu) is served on the side so that you can make your broth as light or as salty as you want. With either soba, you can add other toppings like sliced leeks, wasabi, or seaweed according to your own preference.
The soba noodles here are a little bit thinner compared to the soba noodles from Arakiya. The soba noodles at Haneya have a strong fragrance and are bursting with flavor with every bite. They suit the firm taste of the soup perfectly. Furthermore, because of their thin shape, they are easy to eat and slide softly down your throat. Of the three soba specialty restaurants I visited, Haneya Honten was the best for making your own custom soba bowl.
Finally, I visited Tanakaya, which is conveniently located across the street from the Izumo Taisha Grand Shrine entrance.
In my travels outside Japan, I’ve learned to be suspicious of any eatery where you can see the town’s main tourist attraction from the window. Management in some places can be a bit cynical in that they know tourists won’t be coming back, so there is no need to impress them with quality food. However, this is Japan and Tanakaya is definitely not one of these shops!
This is the closest soba shop to the Izumo Taisha Grand Shrine. Japanese people who are particularly fond of soba are familiar with this restaurant, and visit it often. To order your food, you can use the iPad inside the shop, which has an English menu.
Compared to the other two restaurants, the soba noodles here are a bit darker in their color. These noodles have a supple texture and a pleasant buckwheat aroma. Green onions and radish condiment are added and create a refreshing scent of vegetables.
I had the Kamaage-soba. Be careful not to let the soba sit too long while you get carried away talking about Izumo Taisha Grand Shrine, as it will start to lose its delicious flavor. The decor inside the restaurant is a great blend of both tradition and modern chic, with colorful handcrafted kites on the wall framed by exposed wood beams and lovely bamboo paneling.
After a busy day of sightseeing, it was finally time for some dinner!
Japanese-style pubs are known as izakaya, and I had dinner at one called Izakaya NAMI located near Izumo Taisha. The owner is open and friendly, and staff-member Yumi is so kind. You will find menus written on the wall (in Japanese) which is a common sight in most traditional izakaya.
They have a great selection of local sake, as well as Japanese foods like noodles, and fried chicken all made with local ingredients, in addition to international foods like ajillo which is not that common to see in a traditional izakaya. The sake I tried was very refreshing. I had some traditional Japanese dishes like fried chicken and fish cake stew with various ingredients called oden.
They had Shimane-Wagyu (beef steak) on the menu that day. I couldn’t help but order it. It was very soft, juicy and of course delicious. If this steak is available when you visit, you should definitely order some. However, whether or not it is available will depend on whether they have the ingredients in stock on that particular day.
This izakaya is very popular, and is usually packed with local customers. But I was in luck and there just happened to be seats available! Their food and drink are outstanding, and I was given a warm welcome from both staff and local customers alike, making for a great overall experience.
Open : [Monday - Thurs, Sundays, Public Holidays] 12:00p.m. ～ 2:00p.m. - 5:00p.m. ～ 11:00p.m. Open : [Friday, Saturday and days before public holidays] 12:00p.m. ～ 2:00p.m. - 5:00p.m. ～ midnight Closed : Tuesdays "Other closing dates may apply"
If you are new to soba, you might not taste the difference between these three soba eateries. But the decor, history, and overall feel of each was a completely unique experience in and of itself. Come to Izumo and try them all!
Advice and summary
Finally, I’d like to share a few tips for eating soba in Izumo.
Health-conscious people might be interested in trying soba as it is made from a mixture of buckwheat flour and wheat flour, and there are even gluten-free 100% buckwheat varieties available. Soba also has a lower glycemic index than wheat pasta. However, please be advised that some people are allergic to buckwheat flour, and cooking the noodles won’t protect you from the risk of a reaction. Second, some of the toppings that come with soba can be sticky or slimy.
To ask your server if a particular topping is sticky, you can say “neba-neba desuka?” Finally, although there are restaurants with chair and table seating, a lot of the seating in these soba restaurants is floor seating on tatami mats. However, you might find experiencing tatami mat seating to be a very special, uniquely Japanese experience.