Learning the way of soba and tōfu at Ikkyūan
Ikkyūan is a restaurant group with various types of Japanese eatery across the Ōmi region. It’s managed by Uekawa Satoshi from the Ikkyūan headquarters and restaurant just across the road from Saimyō-ji Temple in Kōra. In addition to running his restaurants, Uekawa-san currently serves as leader of the Ōmi Gourmet Research Group, an informal organisation that considers how to bring the delights of Ōmi’s food and drink to as many people as possible.
I visited the Ikkyūan headquarters on a snowy day in February. The deep forest around Saimyō-ji was bedecked with snow, and the gateway and steps of the temple were a picture in black and white. One of Ikkyūan’s staple offerings is soba noodles. Soba, buckwheat in English, is said to have first been cultivated in Japan by the monastic communities around Mt. Ibuki in Ōmi, where it’s still grown today. It’s also a major crop in Taga, where a branch of Ikkyūan in front of Taga Shrine specialises in soba noodles. Uekawa-san explains that the land in Taga isn’t particularly suited to growing rice, although the more adaptable buckwheat thrives there.
“Has your family served soba for generations?”
Laughs. “No. Years ago, my father took a trip to Nagano where soba is a staple, and he tried making noodles there. A lot of people in Nagano actually make soba noodles at home. He was really impressed and decided to try offering soba here. So it was sort of a hobby thing.”
The plan is for me to have a go at making my own noodles in the Soba Dōjō, a dedicated workshop where anyone from beginners to advanced practitioners can make their own noodles. In the brightly lit, wood-accented room, the equipment is ready. The take-charge instructors make it easy to understand what you have to do. Making the noodles is surprisingly complex and energetic. It takes a bit of muscle to knead the dough, while the coordination required for slicing it into noodles of regular fineness calls for concentration effort.
As I worked, I quickly fell into a soba trance. Somehow, I fooled myself into thinking that my noodles had a professionally made look, until the instructor scooped them up to take them to the kitchen, whereupon they revealed considerable irregularity. “Never mind”, said the kindly lady, “you’ll find that noodles you’ve made yourself taste the best!”.
And it was true! Served in the restaurant with a dipping sauce of fish broth and soy sauce, the noodles are very toothsome, with that pleasing rustic soba taste. Besides the noodles, there’s zarudōfu, a very soft, fragrant variety of tōfu, a bowl of rice topped with yuba tōfu skin, and a soup also containing soft tōfu. People who are used to bland supermarket tōfu will be surprised and delighted by the satisfying rich, creaminess and aroma of Ikkyūan’s ‘craft’ tōfu.
“Before your father got into soba, what sort of food did Ikkyūan offer?” “All sorts of things – udon, sushi, Chinese – anything that our customers wanted really.” “How many establishments do you have?” Here Uekawa-san rattled off a long list tea-shops, soba, barbecue, and sake restaurants, some of them in Ōmi, others in nearby Kyōto. I counted eight, but I might have missed a few. “So you have countless establishments!”
I wanted to know more about Ikkyūan’s tōfu.
“About twenty years ago, my father went to Takashimaya Department Store in Tōkyo and was so impressed by the tōfu sold at a stall in their food section that he sent my sister to learn how to make it. At first, they were sending us the soymilk and we’d make it into tōfu here. But when we decided to make it here with soybeans from scratch, one of the stall-holder’s relatives offered to come and work for us. And he’s still here.”
“That’s a heart-warming story. Where do you get your soybeans from?”
“It varies according to the season, but mainly from Hokkaidō, Kyūshu, and here in Shiga. The beans need to be blended to get the right balance of sweetness and richness.”
“Would it be true to say that tōfu is your leading product?”
“Absolutely. Nobody can copy what we do. I’m planning to refurbish our shop space as a tōfu café. I recently discovered a soymilk espresso machine, and when I tried it, it was like, Wow! That is so good!”.
Local sake is a hot topic these days, and Ōmi has some fine brewers. It’s important that visitors have the opportunity to enjoy a local brew with their meal, so I ask about that. “Do you like sake?” “I do, but I’m not a strong drinker. In a battle with sake, I always lose.” “Is there any particular brand that you serve?” “We mainly serve sake from Echi Shuzō. Their brewery is located near here in Aishō.” “Do you have a favourite local brand?” “I personally like Shichihonyari. It’s really good.” “Ah, I like that too. In fact, I have a bottle of that in my hotel room.” “Let’s go there now then!”
I ask if there are many foreign visitors to Ikkyūan. “We have occasional drop-in visitors from several countries, but we have a lot of Chinese customers.” “Do you know why that is?” “It was a bit of a mystery at first, but then we learned that a Chinese blogger, an influencer, had written good things about us on a review site, and suddenly Chinese diners were coming specifically to our establishments. We’re very pleased about that. We hope to attract more overseas customers with the authentic Japanese eating experience that we offer.”
Since Uekawa-san is nominally leader of the Ōmi Gourmet Research Group, I enquired about the direction their research is taking. “Ōmi is basically a rural area, and as such we have a lot of excellent produce. But we also have chefs with metropolitan and cosmopolitan experience. So we’re thinking how we can combine those things for the enjoyment of visitors. In order to showcase our local produce and culinary skill, we’re planning to hold special nights at select restaurants, serving the unique cuisine of our group members paired with local sake and wine.” “That sounds good. I think we can all look forward to that!”