“Jan jan!” the waitress shouted encouragingly as she tilted the small bowl of noodles over the larger, empty bowl on the table in front of me. They slid into it with a dull splat and I gazed down at them sadly. “More more!”
The portion was not much bigger than a generous mouthful, but the thought of eating it filled me with gloom. All around, piles of empty small bowls were stacked fifteen high, a constant reminder of the noodles I’d already shovelled down. Opposite me, my friend showed no sign of stopping and her waitress repeatedly refilled her bowl at a far more rapid pace than mine. “Jan jan!”
We were passing through Morioka, the main city in Iwate prefecture, and my friend had decided that she wanted to sample wanko soba. This rather unfortunately-named noodle dish is a speciality of the region. Legend has it that, several hundred years ago, a landowner threw a party to which so many guests turned up that he had to divide the noodles into lots of small bowls to ensure everyone received a fair portion. Nowadays, wanko soba represents a food challenge that any self-respecting tourist to this area should try.
The aim is simple: consume as many bowls of noodles as you can. At Azumaya, one of a number of Morioka restaurants specialising in wanko soba, you’ll be led to a low table and handed a bib and an empty bowl. Your server will stand above you, brandishing a tray precariously laden with lots of the smaller bowls of noodles. As they tip the contents of one into your empty bowl, your job is to slurp it down.
Every time you finish, your server will top up your bowl with more noodles. Fifteen small bowls equate to one standard bowl of soba. To ensure you don’t forget what a horrible glutton you’re being, your server will helpfully stack the empty bowls on the table next to you.
It’s not officially a race, but if you have competitive friends it quickly turns into one and I was clearly falling behind. I jabbed at the noodles in front of me. I have to be honest here: wanko soba isn’t the most appetising of dishes. It’s essentially just noodles in a rather bland watery broth, and the texture suggests that they have been stewing in this for quite some time prior to your arrival. This does make them very easy to swallow, though, so perhaps there is some logic behind it.
You’ll be provided with a selection of condiments, including pickles, mushrooms, wasabi and tuna, but my expert advice is to ignore them. Although they’ll add flavour, they’ll also take up valuable stomach space that could be put to better use squeezing in one more bowl of noodles. I'd also recommend that you don't eat a large lunch before embarking on your wanko soba challenge.
I sighed, picked up my bowl and, holding my breath, swallowed the noodles in one gulp. They slid down easily and I found it more efficient, speed-wise, not to chew. It also helped to get into a rhythm: slurp, refill, slurp, refill. Unfortunately, I’d paused for too long and lost my momentum, but my friend was still going strong. “Jan jan!”
Apparently, women consume an average of fifty bowls of wanko soba and men an average of sixty. However, a good number to aim for is 100, because if you manage this you’ll be given a wooden plaque commemorating your achievement. I’d actually reached this number several years previously and had felt rather smug about it. Now, I found myself adding up my empty bowls and wondering what on earth had possessed me to do this all over again.
When you finally decide you can’t handle another mouthful, you must cover your bowl before it’s refilled. This isn’t as easy as it sounds, as your server will be watching closely and will try to slip in some more noodles as you grab at the lid. I knew what to expect, though, and decisively slammed it on before she could manage this. Then I leant back and surveyed the mess I’d made during my eating frenzy, feeling grateful for the bib tied around my neck.
Although my friend beat my total, I was still pleasantly surprised to discover that I’d broken my previous record and had force-fed myself 125 bowls of noodles this time round, which meant that I received another plaque to add to my collection. I made up my mind, however, that this would definitely be my last wanko soba challenge. Unless I ever happen to be in Morioka again with another competitive friend, that is.
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I spent three years living in Japan as an Assistant Language Teacher on the JET Programme, not knowing what to expect but with images of Tokyo, geisha and Mount Fuji in my mind. I was placed in Yamagata prefecture in a small rural town that I couldn't find in any guidebook. I learnt to snowboard, climbed mountains, tried my hand at ikebana and kyuudo and koto, dressed up as a samurai, karaoked til the early hours, become obsessed with onsen, and had countless other adventures and experiences. For a relatively small country, Japan has so much to offer, and I love nothing better than exploring - particularly heading off the beaten track and into the beautiful countryside. I set myself a personal challenge to visit each of the 47 prefectures, which gave me a great excuse to do a lot of travelling. Although I've now ticked them all off, there's still so much I want to see. Japan will always be my second home and and I'm looking forward to discovering and learning more for a long time to come.