“There’s nothing equal to wearing clothes and eating food. Outside this there are neither Buddhas nor Patriarchs.” (Zenrin Kushû)
During our last few days in Japan, our friend, Toshiko, said that she wanted to show us something, a surprise. Not having any clue, we met her near a subway station and followed her to a rather nondescript building, which I don’t think either of us could find again.
I was about to be inducted as novice soba maker.
In Japan, wheat flour is called udon, and so are the noodles made from it. (Udon usually refers to the fat noodles; ramen, to the thin version.) Soba, on the other hand, means buckwheat, and also the flour and noodles made from buckwheat.
We entered a room that had large wooden work benches and a small kitchen in one corner. At each workbench was a big empty bowl, a couple smaller bowls with flour and a huge dowel.
Zen, karate, aikido, iaido and many martial arts from the East, are transmitted from teacher to student in a line of tradition. So also is the art of soba noodles. Soba makers attain levels of achievement awarded to them by the master, much like the colored belts in martial arts.
This class was taught by Soba Master Takashi Ueda, a man who has trained thousands of students including four masters in the central region of Japan. Other men, who were already advanced in the art, joined me that evening.
They unwrapped their custom rolling pins and special noodle-cutting knives, Japanese blades that cost hundreds of dollars. This was a heavy investment in both time and money. Why? Like Robert Pirsig wrote “The Buddha, the Godhead, resides quite as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a motorcycle transmission as he does at the top of the mountain, or in the petals of a flower. To think otherwise is to demean the Buddha – which is to demean oneself.”
The essence of Zen Buddhism is the mind’s total occupation in the meditation itself. The connection between this kind of meditation and the practice of one particular physical task dates back to the time of Bodhidharma, the Father of Zen. He taught at the Shaolin Monastery in China where he developed focused exercises that would later become the Kung Fu of so many Hollywood movies. I’m pretty sure he didn’t do it for the benefit of Bruce Lee, though.
In soba making, there are many steps, each requiring concentration, craft and art. It’s an understatement to say that it would be a mistake to lose concentration while rapidly slicing the noodles into thin strands with a razor-sharp knife.
Fortunately, the master and the advanced students were quite accepting of my antics and laughter. It’s one thing to concentrate in quietude. It’s quite another thing when someone nearby is being a total clown. I managed to make soba though (barely).
When the noodles were made and the tools were cleaned and put away, Master Takashi cooked the noodles that he made and served them up to us. There is no describing how different fresh, handmade soba noodles taste.
The noodle, the texture, the size, the bite, the color and the flavor are a personal interaction of the grain and the maker. As in art… as in poetry… the maker is in the noodle. So also is the Buddha.