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Japan’s original fast food relevant in new ways

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  • ASSOCIATED PRESS
                                A worker prepares soba noodles for customers at a stand-up eatery on a train platform on June 14 in Tokyo.

    ASSOCIATED PRESS

    A worker prepares soba noodles for customers at a stand-up eatery on a train platform on June 14 in Tokyo.

TOKYO >> Soba noodle stands on railway platforms, known as ekisoba, have long allowed passengers to quickly stave off hunger while waiting for their train. While the number of ekisoba shops is said to be declining, they remain popular. This article explores the status of Japan’s original fast food.

In early September at Kawamuraya, a soba shop next to the ticket gates in JR Sakuragicho Station in Yokohama, a line of people waited to get in. The long-­established shop had closed in March in part because of its aging staff. On that last business day, 1,800 customers had come to say goodbye.

That made an impact on Aiko Kagamoto, 31, the daughter of Kawamuraya’s owner. So she quit her company job and took over her father’s business.

“I realized that the shop has been loved by many people and decided to keep the place alive. I am determined to maintain the shop,” she said.

According to Hiroki Suzuki, author of “The 100 Best Ekisoba Shops in Japan,” there are about 3,000 train station soba stands across the country; that includes those located within five minutes of a station. Ekisoba are declining for a number of reasons, including the lack of successors to run the shops, surging costs and increased competition from ekinaka (shopping complex) restaurants located within train station areas.

Ekisoba are said to date back to around 1900, during the Meiji era (1868-1912) when railway networks were built across Japan. The stands spread throughout the country because they allowed passengers to grab a quick bite at reasonable prices while waiting for locomotives.

“Each shop has its own characteristics, allowing customers to feel the local color of the city,” Suzuki said. “I guess many people are drawn to (train) station soba noodles not only because they are cheap, quick and delicious but also because they are nostalgic and (deliver an experience) that gives you a sense of travel.”

One company actually inherited the taste of a soba shop that closed its doors. After the Kisoba noodle shop at JR Oyama Station in Tochigi prefecture closed in January 2022, Shiga Sangyo, a local company, reopened it under a new name and at a new location: Oyama no Kisoba soba shop opened in September 2022 near Ashikagashi Station in Tochigi. The company purchases its noodles from the same noodle factory to achieve the same taste.

“I would like to keep alive the memory of eating soba there with my father,” said Mitsuhiro Matsukawa, a senior official with the company.

Likewise, some fans of the original noodle shop have traveled from Hokkaido and the Tohoku region to try the revived Kisoba noodles.

There are also railway soba sold online and via mail order. One such soba is from a stand at Otoineppu Station in Hokkaido, praised by railway enthusiasts as the most delicious railway soba in Japan. When the stand closed in February 2021, the factory producing its unique black noodles went out of business as well. But Hiroshi Sato, 69, an Otoineppu village resident, has re-created the black color and smooth texture of the shop’s soba. Sato runs the Otoineppu Shokudo restaurant in Mobara, Chiba prefecture. It took him six months to get the green light from the former noodle factory. “I would like to use the noodles to help promote and revitalize the village,” he said.

While the economic outlook for railway soba isn’t necessarily bright, labor-­saving technologies in station soba shops could help the industry.

In June, a “self-ekisoba” vending machine was introduced on the Joban Line platform at JR Ueno Station. A customer can get hot soba out of the machine in about 90 seconds.

Meanwhile, soba shops in five stations in Tokyo and Chiba prefecture, including JR Gotanda Station, introduced a “soba robot” that automates the processes of boiling soba, washing the noodles with running water and placing them in cold water. When a customer places an order at a machine, the cooking starts, and staff put the cooked soba noodles in a bowl and serve it to the customer.

The robot not only addresses the worker shortage but also provides consistency to the quality of the dishes. Tokyo-based Connected Robotics, which developed the soba robot, aims to introduce it in 30 soba shops in the Tokyo metropolitan area by 2026.

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