By Tomoko Takahashi
A Long Story of the Long Soba
New Year’s Eve is just around the corner. Have you ever heard of eating Soba, or buckwheat noodles, on New Year’s Eve? If you do, do you know why we eat them on New Year’s Eve in Japan? Here are some stories that go with your delicious Soba.
Soba is deeply related to our Japanese culture. We can buy ready-made noodles at supermarkets and simply boil them at home, but some people bother to make the noodles from scratch, which is called Te-uchi-soba, or handmade Soba. We see Soba-ya, or Soba restaurants everywhere, and some are even on train platforms, accepting busy office workers to stop by and eat standing! Soba is a part of everyday life in Japan.
According to the book Soba－Edo no Shokubunnka (Buckwheat noodles―The Food Culture of the Edo Period) (2001) by Toshiya Kasai, the very origin of Soba found so far is pollen from a stratum of the beginning of the Jomon period. The direct origin of eating Soba on New Year’s Eve can be dated back to the Edo period. Soba was always eaten on special events in those days, and Toshi-koshi-soba, which means the New Year’s Eve Soba, used to be one of them. Today, Soba is not regarded as something to eat on special occasions, but still the tradition of Toshi-koshi-soba remains. Two different traditions, the tradition of eating Soba in December and the tradition of eating Soba at the end of each month have fused into the tradition of Toshi-koshi-soba.
Firstly, the tradition of eating Soba in December was popular among the people of the Edo period because it was the last chance of the year to taste Shin-soba, which is Soba made from fresh buckwheat flour. It is true that autumn is the general season of fresh flour, but the most delicious flour was said to be made in December, after exposing the seed to some frost, and grinding it in the cold wind, inside a water mill. December 13th was one of the occasions to enjoy eating Soba. It was the day of Susu-harai, the day when people from all classes of the Edo society cleaned their homes. Soba was served at the end of the day as a treat, and it had to be inexpensive so that anyone tired and hungry could ask for another helping without hesitation. Toshi-no-ichi, which is still held at the end of each year as a flea market that sells kitchen utensils and things to celebrate the New Year was one of the popular places to enjoy Soba in December. Besides enjoying Shin-soba, Soba was also eaten to forget the worries of the year, or of December, when debt collectors went around the town.
Secondly, people tended to eat Soba at the end of each month in the Edo period. It was called Misoka-soba, since Misoka means ‘the last day of a month’. Soba was regarded as a frugal but special meal. They ate Misoka-soba to celebrate the fact that they have been able to live another month working hard with good health.
For these two reasons, the last day of December became the perfect day to enjoy eating Soba. Today, people eat Soba to wish for longevity. Since people in the Edo period did not have the custom of celebrating each person’s birthday, they regarded the coming of the New Year as ‘everyone’s birthday’. This led to the idea that eating Soba was to wish for longevity. If you also know Udon, you might want to ask why they don’t eat thicker and ‘Koshi-no-aru’ Udon, with a nice and firm texture, instead of Soba－but it is believed that the truth of life lies in the subtlety that we are destined to die someday. Japanese people preferred Soba to bear this fact in mind. Since the traditional Japanese New Year began in February, it took some time for Toshi-koshi-soba to establish its custom as it is today. Now, everyone loves eating Toshi-koshi-soba on New Year’s Eve. Let’s all wish for everyone’s longevity, and a Happy New Year!