I had read “Shogun” by James Clavell shortly after arriving in Japan, and had enjoyed every page of it. It recounts the story of the Englishman William Adams, Japanese name Miura Anjin, who was shipwrecked on the coast of Japan in 1600, and lived out the rest of his life here. He established a close relationship with Ieyasu Tokugawa, who unified the country around the same time.
The novel gave me a good sense of what Japan was like 400 years ago. What impressed me while reading this novel was how commoners could lose their lives over the smallest of slights. Often, close family members would be executed at the same time. I feel sometimes that the extreme politeness of the Japanese must have come from this past trauma, although James Clavell may have been exaggerating this practice.
Close up of the text of the memorial (notice the last line)
Anjin-san, as he is often called throughout the book, was a real person, and it was amazing that he was able to navigate, survive and thrive in such a harsh environment. He might have been the first true “gaijin”. His grave is located on the Miura Peninsula in Tsukayama Park, which I have also visited (but that will be for another post). His Tokyo home was much closer, since it’s located a stone’s throw from Nihonbashi Bridge, the historical center of Edo Tokyo.
The stone memorial marking the spot is squeezed between two modern buildings. There is an English description of his life, crammed into one long sentence. I had to laugh aloud when I saw the final line: “Rebuilt by some Japanese”. That’s quite a nice way of saying “by Anonymous”. It’s definitely worth a quick visit if one is familiar with the story and strolling through out the area.
Before driving up Mt Akagi for a short hike, I decided to drop by Nakaya Sofuan Honten (なかや 桑風庵 本店) for lunch. There were many other soba restaurants along the road, but this one had by far the highest rating on Google Maps. It was also the 4th highest ranked soba restaurant in the Maebashi area, so my expectations were high.
Table with a view
I parked my car in the large parking lot, crossed the road, and followed a small path through a garden to the entrance. Even though it was a weekday, people were constantly arriving and leaving. Fortunately, the restaurant was quite spacious, and I was seated immediately at a table with a view of the garden.
Sofuan’s handmade soba
I ordered the handmade soba with tempura (天ぷら付き手打ちそば tenpura tsuki teuchi soba). I was impressed with the size of the tempura which included a couple of enormous shrimp. The soba was firm and chewy, and I enjoyed every bite; it’s not often that I eat every scrap on the strainer.
The entrance to Sofuan
It was also possible to have some chilled “amazake” (sweet sake), but I had to pass since I was driving. One interesting aspect about this place was that you could order two, three and four-person portion of soba and tempura. So instead of getting several plates of tempura, everything comes in one big plate. On the other hand, everybody gets their own plate of soba. I guess that is the one thing Japanese diners would rather not share.
On my way to the Tanbara Highland hike, I stopped for an early lunch at the popular Nama Soba Gezan 生そば下山. The name combines “freshly made soba” with a word that means “descending from the mountain”. I chose it since it had a high rating on Tabelog, and was conveniently situated on the road leading to my hiking destination. I was able to time my arrival to a few minutes before the 11h30 opening time, and was surprised to get the last free parking spot; in reality there were only 3 other cars, but I didn’t expect to be last in line way out in the countryside.
The restaurant is prepared for long lines
Fortunately I was seated almost immediately. I loved the traditional setting of the restaurant, especially the sunken fireplaces. Although it was possible to sit on a tatami floor, I prefered a table for the sake of my long legs. The menu was all in Japanese, with vertical writing and prices in the Japanese system. I chose Zaru Soba (“seiro” on the menu), Since the buckwheat noodles are made from scratch, I thought this would be the best way to enjoy their flavour. I ordered “maitake tempura moriawase” as a side dish.
On the left “fresh soba” and on the right “mushroom tempura assortment”
The food was served quickly. I was reminded by the waiter to first dip the noodles into the “tsuyu” sauce before adding the spring onion and radish. Afterwards, I should add them gradually to enjoy the change in taste. Adding toppings little by little is also recommended by some ramen restaurants in Tokyo, so I was familiar with the process. The serving of tempura was huge and delicious. There was even corn on the cob tempura, so unexpected that I bit the cob itself by mistake. The soba itself was a class above anything I had before.
Japanese sunken hearths or “irori” inside the restaurant
There was a “jizake“, or local sake, on the menu, but I had to skip it since I was driving. It was the Tanigawadake brand by the Nagai Brewery which I was familiar with. The total cost was 1600 yen, quite reasonable for a filling soba and tempura lunch. Whether descending or ascending a mountain, it’s a great place to stop for lunch!