By now, those of you who know me well (or who read this blog regularly) probably realize that I have a big crush on soba. While some foreigners who live in Japan become obsessed with ramen, ramen, and yet more ramen, I fell hard for soba. Not just any soba, but Shinshū soba (信州そば), which hails from mountainous Nagano prefecture in central Japan. (“Shinshū” refers to Shinano province, Nagano’s former name.) Why soba? It’s not a crowd pleaser like ramen, curry, or other Japanese favorites, perhaps due to its perception as “health food” in the west. While traditionally prepared soba noodles are indeed very healthy (high in protein and fiber, nearly devoid of animal products, and almost always accompanied by some sort of vegetable), this is not why they appeal to me. Rather, I am drawn to the painstaking process and ritual that surrounds their creation, their minimalist presentation, their hand-hewn texture and earthy flavor, and of course the sheer fun of slurping them up.
Every year, I dread the onset of winter’s brief days and deep, dark nights. Yet every year I remember that this season brings its own small pleasures: snowball fights; friendships strengthened over hot tea and homemade bread; standing in silence among sun-dappled snowy pines, drinking in the cold, fresh air. Winter gives us time to be alone with our thoughts, to make good on our promises, to seek out small adventures in the seemingly endless days until spring.
In a recent fit of restlessness, solitude beckoned in the form of a trans-alpine journey. One bitterly cold morning in January, I awoke in the dark, dressed in my warmest layers, gulped some green tea, and hopped on a bus toward the mountains. The only things weighing me down were a small backpack and a camera. My destination: Shirakawa-go (白川郷), whose name literally means “white river village.”