Japanese noodles come in numerous shapes and forms: ramen, udon, somen and, of course, soba. Made mostly out of buckwheat flour, soba noodles are known to be very nutritious (an excuse I use every time I ask for seconds). The texture is firm with a bit of give, and it has a beautiful nuttiness that makes it delicious even on its own.
Soba is one of the most traditional Japanese foods originating more than 1,000 years ago and making it is considered an artisanal craft. Each soba master has their own secrets: the sourcing of buckwheat, perfected ratio of buckwheat to wheat flour, signature kneading, and rolling techniques. Juwari soba – 100% buckwheat – is the most revered kind among soba purists and requires special skills as the dough is quite brittle and tricky to work with.
Because of its rich flavor, soba is best enjoyed unadorned, either mori (cold, with a dip) or zaru (the same, with nori). The side dipping sauce tsuyu can be simply dashi- and soy-based (soya), or vegetable/meat stock-based sauce (so flavorful!). Another variation – often enjoyed in winter – comes served in hot broth with various toppings: fried tofu skin, crumbs of tempura batter, tempura-ed vegetables or prawn, slices of duck fillet or preserved Pacific herring.
Once you’ve enjoyed your noodles, you’re typically offered a small teapot of hot sobayu (the water in which the handmade soba was cooked) to mix with the remaining sauce in your bowls and drink as a warming end to the meal.
Since it is one of the most beloved, simple and affordable Japanese foods, the choice of soba shops in Tokyo is limitless. To save you time and set you up for success on your soba adventure, I curated a list of my favorite soba shops in Tokyo. Enjoy!
I might be a bit biased, but this spot is probably my absolute favorite. It originated in Karuizawa in Nagano Prefecture and now has two branches in Tokyo, located in Azabujuban and Aoyama. Due to its highlands, the Nagano region is perfectly suited for producing buckwheat and is thus known for the best soba in Japan. The menu in Kawakamian is quite extensive and puts a modern spin on Japanese classics. Come hungry and don’t skip their delicious appetizer section. Although, the star of the show here is undoubtedly soba noodles. I highly recommend duck soba – both, cold and hot options being equally fantastic. Not only is the broth incredibly flavorful, but the pieces of duck breast are served pan-fried which gives them a beautiful char and crispy texture.
After appetizers and bowlful of noodles you might not feel like ordering more, but trust me, dessert is worth the extra calories. Catalana is a local twist on the crème brulee which is frozen and served in bite-sized heavenly cubes (think rich creamy taste and caramelized top). Another good choice might be matcha anmitsu if you feel like trying a traditional Japanese dessert. Bonus: they are very foreigner friendly, with English menu available should you need it. Reservations for dinner at Aoyama shop is encouraged.
This seemingly little soba shop managed to obtain international acclaim after Jean George Vongerichten declared it his favorite soba restaurant in the world. Soba noodles here are indeed excellent. All of their flour is ground in-house and soba is te-uchi: prepared fresh each day, rolled out and cut by hand and served with considerable refinement. I tasted the house special called Matsugen Soba, which includes a variety of vegetables, nori, bonito flakes, fresh wasabi, scallions, and Japanese ginger, all topped with a perfectly cooked quail egg. It was refreshing, healthy, and quite flavorful. Another highly recommended dish is their Uni Soba which comes with almost the same toppings as the Matsugen Soba, plus a sweet dollop of sea urchin. Sublime!
This quaint shop housed within a remodeled century-old building comes to a complete contrast with the swanky cafes and hipster coffee shops of Omotesando. Sit at one of the cozy nooks on the second floor, or make yourself comfortable by the counter and you might be lucky to see the soba master make noodles in front of you from scratch. The flour is shipped here from Hokkaido and yields light and delicate soba, with plenty of subtle, nutty buckwheat taste. Neither their appetizers nor the kamo duck soba will disappoint you. Interestingly, they also serve soba kaiseki for dinner!
Largely revered among soba traditionalists, Kanda Matsuya was founded in 1884 and is housed within a beautifully preserved architectural gem of Taisho era. It stands proudly among the unadorned boxy houses of Kanda neighborhood almost flaunting with its rich façade – wooden gables, tiled half-roofs, two giant white paper lanterns hanging and a miniature Japanese garden. Inside, the interior is simple yet filled with buzz – just like a true sobaya is meant to be. You will probably see the white-clad assistant knead and roll the fresh noodles nonstop in the glass-fronted booth at the back of the room. Staff fussing around in their cute aprons are very welcoming and offer English menu which has an impressive selection of set menus. Depending on the time of year, they use soba produced in Hokkaido, Ibaraki, or Aomori, and at times blend it with Hine soba flour. Besides excellent traditional-style soba noodles, I also tried soba-gaki. It is made with soba flour simply mixed with water to form a dough-like dumpling, then boiled and served warm in a beautiful lacquered pot. As expected, the texture is quite doughy and the flavor is subtle (dipping sauce on the side is necessary), but if you’re a buckwheat flavor purist, you will definitely appreciate it.
This quaint soba joint is nestled on the ground floor of an apartment building in Nakameguro. The decor perfectly balances modern and traditional Japanese aesthetic and is furnished with contemporary seating and natural wood furniture. I love the artisan hand-picked dishware that is used to serve the guests as well as decorate the rooms. While their side dishes are very impressive, one of the most popular items on their menu is sudachi soba. In summer, it is served in a cold broth which has rich citrus-y flavor, and the soba noodles are covered with thin slices of sudachi – Japanese citrus reminiscent of lime, with a more bitter taste. It brings wonderful brightness to the broth. In winter, the broth is warm which gives another dimension to the dish.
Yusui in Jindai-ji
Not many know this, but Tokyo has a historic neighborhood in Chofu suburb which is known for its traditional sobayas. During the Edo period, the farmers living in the area cultivated buckwheat on the land because the soil was not suited for rice crops. The produce was highly praised for its flavor and became one of the beloved, secret spots for enjoying soba. Among numerous small joints, Yusui is perhaps the most venerable. This family-owned soba shop has friendly atmosphere and a lot of options that will catch your eye. I recommend their specialty, yusui tenmori – cold soba with tempura of vegetables and shrimp.
Other soba shops you might want to try are Matsubara, with joints in Harajuku and Kamakura serving excellent side dishes and sake, in addition to freshly made soba; Kyorakutei – old-school restaurant in the backstreets of Kagurazaka; Michelin-starred Tamawarai in Omotesando where “soba in egg soup” is the most popular dish alongside their soba teas; Miyota in Aoyama with simple yet delicious and filling soba meal sets.
Have you tired soba noodles? What did you think?
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Great article! I will be going to Japan for the first time this summer and I wished to ask – is Soba always eaten cold? Or is there a hot variation? And if so, is there a particular name for it?
Hi! It can be enjoyed hot or cold, the details are in this post :) xx
Oh sorry must have missed it! Thanks for replying :)
Another mouth-watering post, Nano! The duck soba looks so delicious :)
It is fantastic! Give it a try at Kawakamian next time you visit. :)
I tried soba noodle for the first time in Spring 2017 in a hole-in-wall restaurant in Tokyo — it was one of the best dining experince I have ever had in Tokyo. My only regret is not taking note of the place name. Will check out your recommendations next time I am in Japan. Thanks Nano 💛
Thank you for reading, Kal! Yours is a perfect example that you don’t need fancy names to have a fantastic meal in Japan. Those secluded, mom-and-pop shops are just as good, of not better!