Exploring Shimane through its tea and soba is one way you can get an introduction to its history and culture. Learn how they are committed to keeping this food tradition alive and thriving in Shimane.
When I’m asked what makes Shimane, “Shimane,” I have a hard time choosing one reason or giving a concise answer. However, having lived in Shimane for two years now, I can say one of the most important takeaways I have is that the people’s character is what makes Shimane the place that it is today. Here, I find individuals who are so passionate about maintaining the history and culture of this area while at the same time creating something new out of it as well. They make it their life’s work to pay homage to their local history and have a social mission of bettering their community. As such, I believe that what makes Shimane so unique are the people and their passion for protecting while building upon their local history, culture, and identity.
– Overlooking Lake Shinjiko from Matsue castleOverlooking Lake Shinjiko from Matsue castle, you start to understand why this region, which includes prefectures such as Shimane and Tottori, is called the San’in. Deriving from the characters San (mountain) and In (shadow), these low ranging mountains cast shadows even over one of its more urban cities like Matsue. Yet, in contrast to the moody atmosphere, which the natural environment casts upon this city, its culture and history is quite vibrant and lively. One of the main reasons for this welcoming contrast is connected to this castle, where I took this picture of Matsue’s cityscape. Daimyo’s family, called the Matsudaira Clan, ruled over this land from Matsue Castle between the mid-1600s to the late Edo period. While there were many prominent members of this clan, I want to focus on its 7th clan head Matsudaira Harusato, more widely known for his tea ceremony name as Lord Fumai.
“To drink tea, collect various tea ceremony items, enjoy soba, build a cottage, and to watch the moon and flowers.”
This poetry is one of Lord Fumai’s poems, representing his ideology towards the joys in life. While Lord Fumai was a daimyo and spearheaded various administrative, infrastructural, and bureaucratic tasks during his time, he was also a “renaissance” man of the Edo period. Fumai had a deep passion for the Japanese tea ceremony or Sado, which led to its widespread popularity in the daily lives of the people of Matsue. Being such an influential trendsetter of his time, Fumai is famously known to have also started the warigo soba. This soba is a dish typical to the Matsue and Izumo region. It consists of three layers of lacquerware containing soba stacked onto each other and eaten with a dark and sweet soy sauce-based broth. According to past documents, being an enthusiast for soba, Fumai would bring it in a bento box with multiple layers to his falconry trips, starting the trend.
Living in Shimane, I would be aware of these patterns in the food culture here but never had a chance to dig deeply into the significance of these observations. While learning about tea and soba’s history and culture was eye-opening, I was also eager to first look into how these “trends” left behind by Fumai were living on today in Shimane. Luckily for me, there are still many tea and soba producers left in Shimane, so I decided to visit a few of them.
I first headed to a local soba restaurant to have some warigo soba. I have had warigo soba in my hometown of Omori before without realizing that it was a local specialty. I always thought that this was one of the common ways you have soba in Japan. As I sat in my seat for a few minutes looking around at what the other customers were ordering, my soba arrived.
You will notice with warigo soba that it first comes in a stack of 3 flat lacquerware containers. The other part that is slightly different from usual is that the broth comes in a pitcher rather than a cup. As you peek in between each layer, it will reveal a layer of soba with different toppings. When eating the soba, pour the broth (which is quite sweet) on the first layer, and after you finish it, pour what remains in your container into the next one (pour more from the pitcher if needed). These soba noodles were freshly made, so they were slightly crinkly and had a brittle texture compared to more elastic noodles like ramen noodles. The fragrance of soba, or buckwheat, is unique, and I personally find it a sweet, grassy scent. After you finish the soba, there is a little cup filled with a starchy liquid. This is called the soba-yu or the water used to boil the soba. It is slightly viscous from the starch, has the flavor of soba, and can only be enjoyed if you boil good quality soba. Some people like to have it as is, while others pour the rest of the broth left in the lacquerware into it to finish the meal with something warm.
Soba itself is a very simple noodle to make, which only requires water, flour, and buckwheat flour. Last year I had the opportunity to make soba in my hometown of Omori for New Years with a few of my friends. First, you mix flour and buckwheat flour and knead into a dough by slowly adding water. Then you form a ball with your dough and spread it out to about 1-2mm in thickness. Proceed to fold the flattened dough into quarters and cut into noodles about 1-2mm in width.
Now, if it is this simple to make, you might ask yourself, “What makes soba in Shimane so special?” To find the answer to this question, I visited Shoji-san at Honda Shoten, where they specialize in making authentic Izumo soba.
According to Shoji-san, Izumo soba is known to include more of the outer shells of the soba seeds in the noodle. This makes for soba with a more potent fragrance of buckwheat when eating Izumo soba. You can see the black specs of buckwheat in the noodle itself as well.
Soba noodles made in other regions of Japan tend to get rid of the shells, resulting in a whiter noodle with a buckwheat’s gentler fragrance. I find that the more robust flavor of buckwheat in Izumo soba can hold its ground against the sweeter and saltier broth served with the warigo soba.
Feeling a little full from the soba, I then visited a green tea farm run by Oka-san of Tousuien in Izumo. His family has been growing and selling green tea in Izumo since 1907. Being a complete novice to how tea is even grown, Oka-san gave me a great introduction to the process of growing tea leaves.
First, tea plants are part of the camellia family known for its shiny green leaves and its characteristic red flowers. I was surprised to hear this because, from my impression, camellia leaves were very stiff and dark green, a direct opposite to the delicate light green tea leaves which were ingrained in my mind. Realizing my initial confusion, Oka-san explained that they only use the young sprouts of the tea plant for green tea.
Not only that, before harvest, the tea growers put a cloth over the plants to stop the process of photosynthesis, cutting about 98% of the sunlight to the plant. During photosynthesis, the tea plant first creates more chlorophyll and pulls various amino acids from the ground through its roots and leaves. However, when photosynthesis occurs, the plant also produces catechin, which is the base of the bitterness you get from tea. To increase the amino acids, green color, and keep the catechin to a minimum, tea growers cover the tea plants with black cloth.
This leads to the plants wanting to go through photosynthesis to pull amino acids from the ground and create more chlorophyll. Yet because there is no light, they cannot go through photosynthesis, which leads to a minimum amount of catechin being made. The results are tea leaves that are bright green, full of umami, and minimal bitterness.
What makes growing tea in Izumo so special is that even without the effort of covering the plants with cloth, producers here can make high-quality green tea. As I mentioned earlier, the San’in region is well known for its gloomy climate, which for some, can be a disadvantage. Yet, for tea growers, this is a natural “cloth” for their tea plants. The cloudy climate of the San’in region naturally provides an environment that is suitable for growing Izumo’s mellow and umami-forward green tea.
For those familiar with tea from the Kanto area, such as Shizuoka, you may find tea from Izumo a little light in flavor and less dense. This difference comes from the variation in steaming and drying techniques found in the different parts of Japan, but Oka-san gave me an additional cultural explanation as well.
“Tea in Izumo is always paired with wagashi (Japanese sweets), so the tea quality is always being measured by how well it pairs with it. Not to mention, there is a culture here where you are supposed to drink many cups of tea using a small cup. In the Kanto region, you use a large mug and have maybe one serving of tea. Here you drink many small cups of tea while eating wagashi or tsukemono (Japanese pickles). So, the culture of tea drinking is engrained into the tea making process as well.”
This gave me some insight into why there were always so many different types of wagashi, made in Shimane, being sold locally here. There are local sweets bought by tourists, but I would never have thought there was ever a significant local demand for it. However, learning about the tea culture here, it only felt natural that there were many wagashi makers for locals in Shimane. Traditional wagashi craftsmen like Tsuchie-san of Fukusendo still make all his sweets by hand, starting from the red bean paste. Seeing the effort and delicate craftsmanship go into each wagashi, I could tell how important this tea culture was for the people in Shimane.
To further understand the tea culture of Shimane, I visited Oshima-san of Sankouen Tea Shop in Matsue. For Oshima-san, Shimane’s tea culture is about “Ochanishimasho” or “Let’s take a break and have some tea.”
“Of course, the tea is important, but for me, the tea is a tool to enter the space of ‘Ochanishimasho.’ The tea is the means to take part in the special time to relax and to take a break.”
At Sankoen, they sell red perilla leave or akashiso herbal tea, which shows that “green tea” is not the only tea that can be enjoyed for a tea break. Oshima-san’s message is that the important thing is not what you are drinking, but about taking the time and taking a break for tea and snacks. Thus, Shimane’s tea culture’s true essence is not merely reliant on the fact that good green tea can be grown here. It is as much the philosophy the residents have towards a lifestyle.
After listening to the stories about tea culture in Shimane, I had to try this out during my own time. I got myself a teapot and some small teacups (both locally made in Shimane), bought some wagashi, and tried out this “Ochanishimasho” with the tea from Tousuien. To be completely honest, I was always a little bit overwhelmed by the green tea I had in the Kanto region with its string “brothy” flavor. However, the tea from Tousuien was, as Oka-san said, umami forward but light and mellow. I could taste the depth of the green tea, but it did not overpower my palate. Together with the wagashi, the tea balanced perfectly with the gentle sweetness of the red bean. I also found a great post-meal drink, as the ritualistic steeping and pouring had a relaxing effect.
Tea and soba, both so quintessentially Shimane and both brought into cultural popularity by Lord Fumai of Matsue. While cultural and regional specialties can sometimes be challenging to enjoy during your daily routine, I found these two to be a welcoming addition to my lifestyle. In particular, the tea had a lot of benefits for me as a coffee alternative during the day. Because these local specialties were popularized for its added QOL benefits enjoyed by Fumai, they are products that people can enjoy casually. I might not be able to build a cottage or collect hundreds of tea ceremony items, but I can drink tea, enjoy soba, and watch the moon and flowers!