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Friday, April 15, 2005

TOKYO FOOD FILE

Buddha, soba and the great outdoors


Spring is here, the sap is rising, buds are budding and the Food File's fancy turns to . . . noodles? Out in Chofu, heartland of Tokyo's bed-town suburbia?

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Matsuba Chaya

Ah, but these are not just any old noodles. We're talking te-uchi -- hand-rolled, hand-chopped soba noodles, served al fresco beneath a soaring forest canopy of fresh young foliage. The location is Jindaiji, one of the lesser-known areas of parkland in this multifaceted city of ours.

In the beginning, there were bubbling springs of crystal-clear water, set among virgin forest on the edge of the Musashino plain. Here, in this sylvan setting, a Buddhist temple was founded in 733, only the second in the entire area now covered by Greater Tokyo. But Jindaiji's main claim to fame is not so much its religious affiliation as the noodles with which its name is now indelibly associated.

The art of making soba -- noodles cut from a rolled-out dough of buckwheat flour -- first spread through Japan in the 16th century. By the early 1700s, there were already numerous small tea houses clustered outside temple gates, serving refreshments to visitors -- notably the soba they produced from locally grown buckwheat grain ground to flour in mills, turned by the constantly running water of the spring-fed streams.

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The popularity of Jindaiji soba spread fast, and for the past 300 years visitors have continued to make their way there to sample and slurp on the local specialty. Not only are the noodle shops still there, the entire area around the temple has been kept low-rise and unspoiled. Even more remarkably, the surrounding hillsides are still covered in woodland, much of it preserved inside the delightful expanse of Jindaiji Botanical Park.

These days there are no less than 30 soba restaurants in the immediate vicinity of the temple, ranging from simple, homely mom 'n' pop operations to larger ryoriya where the noodles are part of sophisticated multicourse meals. Those by the main temple gate are the most atmospheric -- their weathered beams, rustic water wheels and homely artifacts evoking the mood of bygone times. Some have outside seating looking out onto a small, scenic pond. Others have outside stalls doing a brisk business in steamed soba-manju buns and buckwheat cookies.

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This bustling market street can get very crowded, especially at weekends. If, like us, you prefer rather quieter surroundings, then make your way up the hill behind the temple compound. Here, close by the entrance to the Botanical Park, you will find a couple of fine little soba shops: Tamanoya and, right next to it, our favorite, Matsuba Chaya.

Truth to tell, there is little to choose between the two. Both are simple places, with virtually identical menus and friendly waitresses at their doors, calling out to passersby and drumming up custom in the time-honored style. But Matsuba Chaya shades it by virtue of its slightly quieter setting, its spacious outdoors dining area -- and its excellent noodles.

It has only been in existence for 50 years or so but, like its neighbor, it looks as though it could have sprung fully formed out of a Hokusai woodblock print. The single-story wooden structure was built around a massive nara-no-ki (oak), which shadows the tables with its leaves in summer and showers them with acorns in the fall.

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Jindaiji Temple

Flags and lanterns beckon cheerfully, but for soba aficionados the primary attraction is the sign advertising the house special: juwari soba. Most of the soba shops at Jindaiji make their noodles to the traditional nippachi ("two-eight") formula, adding two parts of wheat flour to eight of buckwheat. The natural gluten in the wheat flour binds the buckwheat flour together, so the noodles do not fall apart. Just a few -- Matsuba Chaya among them -- have mastered the skill of preparing their noodles solely from buckwheat flour.

These are very different from the dark, chewy noodles you find in rustic noodle shops in the mountains of Nagano. In fact, you could almost call them refined. The color is a pale off-white, with nary a fleck of brown bran to be seen. There is sufficient texture to give your teeth some work, but they are light enough to slip smoothly down your throat.

The pure buckwheat noodles, cut slightly thicker than their regular nippachi soba, are served chilled, either on their own (seiro; 900 yen) or with tempura (ten-seiro; 1,500 yen). Nippachi soba, available either hot or cold, cost as little as 650 yen for a basic serving of mori (cold) or kake (hot).

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But tarry a while before you order those noodles. You are there to relax, so order a bottle of beer and a few snacks and let your shoulders loosen up. The local jibiru, known as Jindaiji Beer, is a tasteless, vapid liquid that is best avoided. Instead, order a bottle of the excellent Soba Beer, an imported U.S. microbrew (from Rogue Ales in Oregon; 500 yen).

Matsuba Chaya has a wide range of typical soba shop snacks; itawasa, slices of white kamaboko fish paste with a dab of wasabi for your shoyu dip; yakitori; mixed tempura; soba-miso, grains of buckwheat mixed into a sweetened miso; and age-soba, deep-fried noodles that are every bit as addictive as potato chips.

As you round off a leisurely lunch at Matsuba Chaya, with the wind soughing through the trees above, the sun dappling your shoulders and birdsong in your ears, it is hard to believe you are just 30 minutes away from Shinjuku. There might be plenty more illustrious soba shops in Tokyo, with more venerable histories -- not to mention more comfortable seating. But very few can boast a location to rival that of Matsuba Chaya.

Matsuba Chaya
5-11-3 Jindaiji Motomachi, Chofu-shi; tel: (0424) 85-2337
Open: 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
Closed: Monday (Tuesday, if Monday is a national holiday)
Nearest stations: Chofu (Keio Line)
How to get there: Take the Keio Line from Shinjuku Station (14 minutes by limited express train). From the north exit of Chofu Station, it is a 15-minute bus ride to Jindaiji Temple (or to the Jindaiji Iriguchi stop and then walk). Matsuba Chaya is up on the hill behind the temple complex, facing the gate to the Jindaiji Botanical Park. There are also buses from Tsutsujigaoka Station (Keio Line) and from Mitaka and Kichijoji on the JR Chuo Line.
What works: Good honest soba, in a quiet, al fresco setting surrounded by greenery.
What doesn't: Beware of mosquitoes in midsummer.
Number of seats: 86 (including 36 on the terrace)
Price per head: Soba from 650 yen; side dishes from 300 yen
Drinks: Beer from 350 yen/glass, 500 yen/bottle; sake from 550 yen; jizake 800 yen
Credit cards: Not accepted (cash only)
Language: Japanese menu; English spoken



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