Picture the scene: you are seated in a tatami (Japanese traditional-style) dining area. You're holding a small bowl in one hand, filled with soba noodles steeped in a flavourful broth. The serving size is small, just about a mouthful's worth. You use your chopsticks in your other hand to pick up the noodles and down it all in one quick slurp. You raise your empty bowl and a smiling sever adds another serving of soba noodles into your bowl while cheerfully saying "Hai don, don!", her way of encouraging you to eat more.
Now imagine this continuing again and again. The first few bowls of soba taste great - the broth is just the right amount of salty and flavourful, and there are condiments like scallions, pickles, and sliced tuna that you can add to your bowl to make it more interesting. It's a delightful meal. But flash forward to 50 of these bowls later - would you still feel the same way? Or is your relationship with soba about to take a whole new turn?
This exactly the predicament Suzana, Amir and I found ourselves in while we were exploring the Tohoku region of Japan a couple of weeks back. While doing our research on Tohoku prior to our trip, we were fascinated to come across a local specialty called Wanko Soba that originates from the Iwate prefecture, particularly in the city of Morioka. While we were already familiar with soba noodles (the Japanese noodle made out of buckwheat), we had never heard of Wanko Soba - we initially thought it was a particular type of dish made with soba noodles. But that's not it at all!
So what IS Wanko Soba? It actually refers to a style of eating where you are served bowl after bowl of soba noodles, with the aim of eating as many as you can. Why soba noodles, you may ask? Well, soba (the Japanese word for buckwheat) has long held significance in the area going back to olden days, where the climate and the soil made it difficult to grow other types of grains. Soba noodles quickly became a staple dish, with people in Morioka serving it to guests who dined at their houses. While there are different stories to how Wanko Soba emerged as a lasting tradition, it's generally viewed as a symbol of hospitality, with the hostess (these days the server of the restaurant you dine at) continuing to serve you bowl after bowl until you say "Maitta!" (enough!) and cover your bowl.
We were intrigued when we first heard about this specialty, and while we were hoping to be able to try it, we weren't so optimistic we would be able to, given that it appeared pretty hard to find versions of wanko soba that are Muslim-friendly. Generally, the broth the soba noodles are served in is made using non-halal meat sources, or they typically contain ingredients that have alcohol, such as mirin.
So imagine our delight when we found out that there's an eatery in Morioka that actually prepares Muslim-friendly wanko soba! Azumaya Soba Shop is a well-known eatery in Morioka with four outlets located around the city, and it's become a popular place for visitors to try doing the challenge. Two of their outlets (the Honten outlet as well as the Otesaki outlet) offer the Muslim-friendly version which is made using a seafood-based broth and does not contain any alcohol. Reservations for the Muslim-friendly wanko soba must be made at least three days in advance by telephone.
So with a reservation at Azumaya in place, we were all set to try wanko soba for ourselves! On the day we went for the challenge, we had had a fruitful day venturing out to Geibikei (check out our Tohoku Instagram highlights to see what we got up to!) and had been mentally psyching ourselves up for the challenge to come ? We went to Azumaya's Otesaki outlet, which is actually on the upper floor of the double-storey shop lot where it's located (head up the black staircase on the left!).
P.S. We explored Morioka and the rest of the Tohoku region using the JR East Tohoku area rail pass! We'll be writing more about our trip in upcoming articles, so keep an eye out for them ?
When we arrived, we were quickly ushered into a room that was laid out with tableware and side dishes. Entering the eatery, we could already hear the sounds of other people doing the challenge, with servers cheering diners on and the clatter of bowls as diners consumer one bowl after another of noodles. With gathering anticipation, we got seated ourselves. We were given an instruction manual in English that helpfully described the background and history of wanko soba. It also laid out your aspiration for the challenge: to eat 100 bowls! ?
The instruction guide. Notice how they even specify how the server won't stop serving if you don't put your lid on your bowl?
Diners who eat 100 bowls are deemed to have accomplished a feat and are awarded with a small wooden plaque to commemorate their achievement. The instructions included in the guide even gave helpful tips to accomplish the goal, from not filling up on the broth (they prepare a small bucket where you can dump excess broth) to taking it easy on the condiments.
Condiments all laid out for our meal - it included scallions, pickled radishes, grated yam, sliced tuna, sesame seeds and seaweed
Our server also came in and introduced herself before proceeding to go through the general rules of the challenge. It was also amusing to note that your servers at Azumaya will playfully tease you leading up to and during the challenge - our server said she had great expectations for us and wanted to make sure we performed our best to eat as many bowls as possible!
Our server explaining the challenge to us while smoothly setting expectations for us to eat a lot (no pressure ?) You can see the stacks of trays filled with red bowls containing soba noodles for our challenge to her right!
After she explained the challenge, we tied on the aprons you're meant to wear while you eat and got ready. Going into it, we were told that eating 15 small bowls of wanko soba equals one regular-sized bowl and that the average amount of bowls consumed for women is at least around 30 - 40, while for men it's around 50 - 60. So with our chopsticks and bowl at the ready, we started eating!
Every time we finished a bowl, we would raise our bowls slighty and our server was on hand the entire time to take another red bowl of noodles and pouring it into our eating bowl before stacking the empty bowl neatly by our side so we could keep track of how many servings we had eaten. Major props to her and other servers at Azumaya - they stand throughout pretty much the entire duration of the challenge, disappearing for short moments to collect more trays laden with bowls of soba noodles. It's not easy work but they do it cheerfully and efficiently, exclaiming "Hai don, don!" or "Hai jan, jan!" with each bowl they serve. For every stack of 15 bowls, our server would count them up and applaud us for completing another full-sized bowl's worth of soba.
You can tell this is still early in the challenge by the genuine excitement I had for the new serving of soba. Suzana, on the other hand, had her game face on
We're not gonna lie - by the time we ate our 40th bowl, we were starting to become well aware that getting to 100 was going to be a pipe dream. As delicious as soba noodles are, after a certain number of bowls there's a sense of diminishing returns, and it's hard to maintain the same enthusiasm to eat even if you jazz up your soba with the condiments given. Even Suzana, who professes a great love for soba, wasn't able to keep the momentum going strong. As we finished our third stack of 15 wanko soba bowls (meaning 45 bowls in total), we acknowledged that 100 bowls probably wasn't going to happen (even as our server said she was positive could see us going on and on ?). But that didn't mean we didn't put up a good fight!
It's worth noting that there's no time restriction to the challenge. You're allowed to take as long as you want, so long as you do it continuously (which means no toilet breaks in between, so make sure you go to the restroom beforehand!). It's established wanko soba wisdom that eating at a faster pace tends to stave off the full feeling for longer, which was why we could hear plenty of other people eating at what sounded like breakneck speed ? We couldn't keep that pace though, so we opted for a more measured (i.e. slower) approach.
Well, whichever approach we had chosen, I'm guessing the end result would have been the same - our stomachs bursting to the brim with soba and a dire desire that we had had the foresight to wear something looser than jeans. A kaftan perhaps. Something stretchy and expandable ? By the time we got to our fourth full-stack (meaning 60 bowls in total), Amir and Suzana waved the white flag, using their lid to cover their bowls so our server wouldn't ninja-manoeuvre another serving into them.
The aftermath of the challenge (gotta build those stacks!)
I'm not sure what possessed me to keep going after the 60th bowl (a competitive nature? a sense of pride? the desire not to disappoint our cheerful server?), but keep going I did! One bowl, and then another. I wish I could say I suddenly had a second wind and an accompanying burst of appetite that powered me through to 100 bowls, but alas, I don't think I could have done that without exploding. By this time our server (who had been serving all three of us) had her full attention on me, and she teasingly threatened that she was watching my bowl carefully. But after about five bowls, I was done. I finished slurping down the last bit of soba noodles before quickly covering the bowl with the lid. I capped my wanko soba challenge at 65 bowls.
Our server thanked us for participating in the challenge and brought us a dessert to help cleanse our palates. She soon also came back with a surprise - she gave us all the special wooden certificates anyway, seeing as how we were visitors that had come a long way for the challenge! ☺️It was a nice token that we truly appreciated, even as were stuffed to the brim with soba noodles.
Snapping a pic with our certificates. Check out those bowl stacks!
Overall, the experience was tremendously fascinating (not to mention super filling!). We were so glad to have had the opportunity to try this unique experience that's special to Morioka and the Iwate prefecture! We would recommend anyone travelling to the Tohoku region to try this experience at least once - it's not everyday someone can count an all-you-can-eat experience as a cultural must-try ?
P.S. We explored Morioka and the rest of the Tohoku region using the JR East Tohoku area rail pass!
Azumaya Soba Shop
Halal status: Offers Muslim-friendly version of wanko soba that's made with seafood-based broth and excludes alcohol at the Honten and Otesaki outlets. Please note that the eatery does serve non-halal menu items (including pork), however, based on our checks, different cooking utensils are used to handle the ingredients that go into the broth. Reservations for the Muslim-friendly wanko soba must be made at least 3 days in advance via telephone
Price: JPY 3,460 per person
Honten outlet - 1-8-3 Nakanohashi-dori Morioka city 020-0871
Otesaki outlet - 17-40 Uchimaru Morioka city
Honten outlet - 019-622-2252
Otesaki outlet - 019-623-7540