*Notice: The following is a work of fiction.
“Haruki, we need some help over here!”
[chewing] “Srry, mumimo, brrgt thr!”
She was born in February, with such beautiful white skin that they named her Yukino, after the snow. I was born in April. They named me Haruki, spring tree, in the hopes that I would grow up strong and tall. We’re both in our first year at Tono Daini High School. Same grade, same afterschool club.
We’re out in schoolyard behind the school, where the snow piles up. We’ve stuck a table in the snow and set up a gas stove, pot, bowls, and dipping sauce for the noodles. The surrounding snow has been trampled down by the feet of our four club members.
Steam from the hotpot billows up into the air, which is so cold you could hammer in a nail with a banana, as they say. We’ve got bulky, drab winter clothes bundled over our school uniforms, four white clouds streaming from our four mouths.
Our soba club is practicing intently for the upcoming competition.
It’s February 11 in the city of Tono, Iwate Prefecture—known as the “town of folklore,” thanks to a famous collection of legends known as the Tono Monogatari. The All-Japan Wanko Soba Challenge is being held in nearby Hanamaki.
There are two different stories about the origin of Iwate-style wanko soba: the Morioka legend and the Hanamaki legend. Wanko soba is served in a small bowl containing a bite-sized portion of noodles. When the guest finishes it, the server adds more noodles, refilling the bowl until the lid is placed over it.
The Hanamaki all-you-can-eat noodle challenge happens in February, the same month that Yukino was born. The Morioka challenge is held in fall, just as the new buckwheat crop comes in.
But the competition here in Tono, where we live, is a little different.
The Neo Wanko Soba challenge takes soba-eating to the level of an athletic event.
The two wooden nameplates we drag to the venue are as tall as we are.
One is just a blank board, while the other has “Soba Club” brushed on it in calligraphic script.
The club has a tradition where the current president rewrites the nameplate as a kind of victory prayer just before the competition.
The person in charge of this clumsy calligraphy project is our third-year president, Hosoki. He’s a slim guy with a huge appetite and an unflappable expression that can put out any fire in a second. Naturally, he fills the “eater” position on our team.
The strategy is simple. Just keep eating, and put the lid on your bowl when you can’t eat any more. A point is awarded for every finished bowl, and the person with the highest score wins.
Kurasuma, a second-year student, is our boiler. The word “kurasuma” is actually used to describe dark places in our local Tono dialect, but Kurasuma doesn’t live up to his name. He’s actually the life of the party.
The shooter is the person who fills the bowls with soba. This position is filled by my childhood friend, the first-year student Yukino. Both of us came from farming families, and were so close in age and close in proximity that we basically grew up as family. The shooter is allowed to fill bowls belonging to both teams.
If the eater can’t finish what’s in their bowl, it’s a drop-out violation that costs them the match—so each team has a defender to prevent it from happening. In our case, that’s me. When it gets down to the wire and your eater is at their limit, the defender can step in and eat for them. The team just doesn’t get any points for it.
Since the defense only kicks in during the final stages of the competition, it frees me up to help my other team members during the rest of the match. It’s really important that I make smart decisions along the way.
Our opponent in the final round is last year’s champion, Southwest Hanamaki High. They have a powerful eater on their team, and the members in the other positions are really skilled as well.
The referee, who has this weird habit of drawing out the end of every word like it’s a soba noodle, lowers his right hand to single the start of the match.
The two teams start out neck-in-neck. The trick is getting Kurasuma to boil the noodles at a good clip while Yukino quickly flings them into our eater’s bowl.
Keep in mind that the match gets called if the frontrunner ever gets up to a 20-bowl lead.
“I’m starting the next batch!” We hear Kurasuma shout.
He was doing his typical sideways shout to avoid spitting into the pot.
I alternate between helping out Kurasuma and helping out Yukino. But I’m clumsy compared to the other team, unable to properly regulate my pace. Our opponents work with a steady rhythm, quickly racking up points. Realizing that their lead was about to widen dangerously, Kurasuma falls silent. He’s now boiling noodles with everything he has.
“Unboiled noodle!” The referee shouts.
We lose three points during a random check to make sure the soba is done enough.
“Crap!” Disheartened, Kurasuma slows his pace.
“This sucks, we’re about to loo—“
[chewing] “Mfts umkr! Wrl mrk a combrk! Wr kn dr it!”
Hosoki, our club president, is the heart and soul of our team. His mangled words punctuated by noodle-slurping are always a relief to hear. Our “BSE” boil-shoot-eat chain starts to really come together.
Yukino shouts her encouragement as she gracefully launches noodles into his bowl.
“Let’s go get ‘em!”
Her skin is as white as the snowcapped Tono mountains. Her face intent, I see a bead of sweat run down her profile, reflecting the tree-dappled light. How could anyone not fall in love with her? My childhood friend.
We’re down to the wire, time for the shooter to switch gears.
The eaters are stuffed, so the first place the noodles go now is into the opponent’s bowl.
The other team’s eater is polishing off his 262nd bowl of soba, ready to clinch the lead.
Our shooter Yukino, still just a first-year, isn’t keeping up. Before she can get the next pile of noodles in his bowl, he closes the lid. Southwest Hanamaki High had locked in their 262 points. She lets out a scream of disappointment.
It’s come down to their shooter versus our team captain and me.
Hosoki makes it to 265 bowls. If he can get the lid on, we’ll win.
But their shooter had some crazy reflexes—backed by their boiler, who cooks the noodles at a truly impressive speed.
Hosoki’s out. He can’t eat another bite.
I’m up! Time to step in and eat the soba for him.
But I’m not quick enough to get the empty bowl back to Hosoki in time.
You see, only the eater can put the lid on the bowl.
On it goes, until I‘ve polished off over a hundred bowls of noodles.
I can win if I surpass the 262 bowls their eater ate, but typically, the eater is chosen because they have the best stomach for the job.
Ugh! This was getting rough.
“Keep at it!”
The senior team members were cheering me on.
“You can do it, Haruki!”
Yukino’s words of encouragement go straight to my heart. Still, some things are simply not possible.
Twenty seconds left. Any noodles left in the bowl and we were done. No!
But my mind couldn’t make my stomach less full.
That’s it! I’m done for.
And just then…
“I’m on it!”
Haruki reaches out his arm to grab the bowl back and in an instant has demolished the soba in it. Then, with lightning speed, our team captain successfully puts the lid on the bowl.
I guess he had a tiny space open up in his stomach after all.
Tortured cries from the other team.
Delighted shouts from ours.
The referee chimed in. “And the winner is… Tono Daini!! Sobaaaaaa…. Finiiiiiiiiiish!!”
Our teacher supervisor drives us back to the room in his van, but I’m so full I can’t move. It’s all I can do to just lie there on the tatami floor.
“We were awesome!” Kurasuma bellows. I wish he hadn’t. The reverberations go right to my stomach.
“Uggh…” I hear Hosoki groan from the floor beside me. “But you know,” he continues, “Haruki can really put down some noodles himself.” I appreciate the compliment.
Yukino laughs. “I guess we found our next-generation champion eater.”
“I really can’t eat that much…” I moan.
I try to picture myself two years down the road.
Throwing down bowl after bowl of soba like a tornado.
The noodles my childhood friend tosses in my bowl certainly don’t taste bad. Well—I guess the taste is kind of up to the boiler too. [laughs]
You’ve got to eat what’s on your plate and enjoy it. That goes double if it’s soba from Yukino.
I think I can eat for my team after all. And enjoy every last bite.
—the number-one rule when it comes to Neo Wanko Soba!