Nobuhiro Hoshi (Minamiaizu Town): Growing buckwheat with passion and enthusiastic devotion
In this Aizu region, there are half a dozen well-known places where buckwheat is grown. One of those is the town of Minamiaizu, which has a strong reputation for producing good-quality soba. Soba is often grown in mountainous areas with poor soil where rice can’t be cultivated to satisfaction. That describes Minamiaizu.
“In this area, up until a while ago every family had a stone mill, rolling pin, and knife for cutting soba noodles. There was even an adage, ‘You’ll never be a wife if you can’t make soba.’” So says Nobuhiro Hoshi, a buckwheat farmer in Minamiaizu and representative of the Mizunashi Nousan Club.
He notes that, “Every day people would make and eat soba noodles at home, and even welcome guests with soba. The feasts eaten on formal occasions like festivals would also be soba.” Nobuhiro explains that soba is a staple food as well as one of the dishes served to show hospitality. It’s created a unique food culture.
Nobuhiro, with his perfectionist tendencies, became engrossed in buckwheat not long after. Not only did he cultivate buckwheat, but he went so far as to produce buckwheat flour.
The buckwheat Nobuhiro currently grows is an original variety developed by Fukushima Prefecture called “Aizu no Kaori” (the aroma of Aizu). Originally, there were ten-plus native varieties in Fukushima Prefecture, which is one of Japan’s leading producers of buckwheat with the fifth largest acreage in Japan (for buckwheat produced in 2021). To create a buckwheat brand, Fukushima Prefecture repeatedly carried out individual and group selection from the native varieties (without artificial hybridization) and cultivated the buckwheat to create “Aizu no Kaori.” Nobuhiro speaks effusively, “It’s the best variety. You’d expect no less after succeeding in such a hard-fought battle. It’s easy to cultivate, yields an abundant harvest, and is easy to grind and make into noodles. On top of that, it has really great flavor and aroma. It truly has everything and more going for it.”
To produce great-tasting buckwheat, Nobuhiro meticulously conditions the soil using compost containing components such as cow manure, broad leaf tree bark, and oyster shells. Every year between late August and early September, the buckwheat flowers come into full bloom in the fields signaling harvest time. After Nobuhiro harvests the blackened buckwheat seeds, he slowly dries them for a long period of at least two days using a drying machine. That’s because the flavor is lost if they’re dried too quickly. The buckwheat seeds (unpolished buckwheat) that have been dried are placed in cold storage and removed a little at a time as needed to grind. This ensures that freshly ground buckwheat can be enjoyed.
The process of producing buckwheat flour involves cleaning (using a brush to clean debris from the surface of the buckwheat seeds), stone removal (separating out stones), sorting (grouping into 4 different sizes), husking, then grinding with a stone mill. Nobuhiro takes his time to carefully carry out this work. He says, “If you don’t do each and every task with care, the temperature will rise, the components will deteriorate, and too much moisture will evaporate. That means you can’t make good buckwheat flour.” This process is very painstaking work.
Nobuhiro’s older brother who asked him to grow buckwheat became so enamored with soba that he began making soba noodles himself. Two or three years after Nobuhiro started producing buckwheat, his older brother quit his job and even opened a local soba noodle shop in front of Aizu-Tajima Station. He uses the buckwheat flour milled by Nobuhiro and serves soba noodles he makes himself. Nobuhiro still remembers when his older brother told him how good his buckwheat flour tastes. Nobuhiro softly says, “I wish my late father who loved soba could’ve eaten them, too.”
He also learned how to make soba noodles from his older brother, and two years after his brother opened a soba shop, Nobuhiro opened one in Nasushiobara where he serves soba noodles he makes himself.
“I grow the buckwheat and run a soba noodle shop at the same time, so to tell the truth, I often think ‘this is really hard,’” says Nobuhiro. Why then, does he keep working so hard? “It’s pride and an enthusiastic devotion, I guess (laughs). In my mind, I’m just focused on making great-tasting soba. I want to see customers looking satisfied. That’s all. Soba has given me an invaluable purpose in life. “
Nobuyuki Kanno (Iwaki): Once the ‘soba-making policeman,’ now the architect of community revitalization through soba
“Yes, I remember that person very well. He’s an amiable, good person. Even though he was a policeman, he was crazy about making soba noodles. Since he was good with his hands, he became skilled so quickly that even a professional would be surprised.” That’s according to the owner of a long-established soba noodle shop in the Miyako district of Yamato in the city of Kitakata. “That brings back memories. I’d like to see him,” he recalls fondly.
Today, as the architect of community revitalization through soba, Nobuyuki energetically works to convey the appeal of soba and boost its popularity. He’s a certified soba-making expert who holds a fifth level (highest) Soba Meister rank from Zenmenkyo soba association.
Nobuyuki, who is from the Shinchi neighborhood of Soma County, was once a police officer in the Fukushima Prefectural Police. In 1996 when he was in his late 40s, he was assigned to work at the Yamato Police Substation of the Kitakata Police Station in the Aizu Region. Nobuyuki had long been working in the warm Fukushima region called the Hawaii of Tohoku and couldn’t imagine the Aizu region where snow piles up as much as three meters in some places. He really didn’t want to go and even talked seriously to his colleagues about quitting. However, they encouraged him with words about Mt. Iide being sacred and surrounded by great nature, and telling him how good the soba is. He changed his mind, thinking that if it’s as good as they say, he shouldn’t quit before going to see it. That became a huge turning point that truly changed his life.
It’s that Yamato neighborhood that Nobuyuki moved to for work. He began making soba noodles after being encouraged to do so by the Yamato residents and became thoroughly obsessed. At one point, Nobuyuki thought to connect soba to police work, and with the desire to nip incidents and accidents in the bud by starting close to home, he created a slogan for fliers that used a play on the word ‘soba’ (close is also pronunced as soba in Japanese). It became a hit. From then on, he has worked with relevant neighborhood departments to actively promote creating a safe and secure community. Evidence of those efforts are found on a signboard still standing along a prefectural road in Yamato that was put up by Nobuyuki during his police work. The sign says, “100% buckwheat flour, 100% seatbelts.”
After working at the Yamato Police Substation, he went on to assignments at several other substations, then left the prefectural police a year before mandatory retirement and started activities in earnest as a member of the Utsukushima Soba Okoku Group.
He coordinates with buckwheat farmers throughout the prefecture as he engages in promotional activities for soba. He looks happy as he talks about Nobuhiro Hoshi. “He really has devoted his life to making soba and is a wonderful person who’s realized the potential of soba.” Nobuyuki has also built a small hut in a corner of his own home to make soba noodles. He obtained permission to operate a business from the health center and is selling the soba noodles he makes and serving soba by reservation.
When he looks back twenty-some years ago, the first time he set foot in Yamato in late March snow was piled high on both sides of the road leading to Mt. Iide. Bathed in strong sunlight shining down from the clear sky, that snow made soft noises as it evaporated. Nobuyuki was greatly moved by that dazzling radiance and beauty. He remarks, “I’d never seen such as sight before or since. I felt as if the entire community was welcoming me.” Together with that moving encounter with Yamato, his desire to contribute to energizing the community and help others through soba still burns brightly within him today.
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