Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Azuma An soba, Mashiko (お食事処 あづま庵, 栃木県 益子町)

Oh hey, are you still there? You wouldn't believe the drop-off in visitations that this blog suffered after the whole 'earthquake' 'sunmi' ' radiation' thing. It's almost like all the foreigners left Japan and no one wanted to vacation here. Well, you're in good company - others are coming back too. Thanks.

But Golden Week is a funny time to come back. Lots of people are off from work (including me), all the tickets are 2 or 3 times the price, hotels are jammed...even rental cars were almost booked up. We wanted to get one just for today and ended up renting a 'work' vehicle, which I think was possible only because people didn't notice that station wagons were classified in that category despite being the same size and cost as normal compact cars.

And after a drive that took only twice as long as it should have (4 hours), we hit the spring hotspot of Mashiko, famed year-round for earthy pottery but especially so now in the Spring Festival. It's not much of an exaggeration to say that every storefront was selling either a big range of wares or else a few sad specimens, and the parking lots and lawns all through town were similarly crowded. It was fun, and the pottery is fairly attractive in general as well as quite affordable even for finer or more notable stuff. My idea of a good time.

Raccoon dogs are famous for knowing how to have a good time. This was an odd little pond in the back corner of a parking lot, overrun for the time being by pottery stalls.

I can't believe I went all the way to Mashiko and forgot to take a picture with the 40-foot tanuki that's in the same parking lot as this one. Not saying I hafta go back, just a little twinge of disappointment with myself.

All pottery and no lunch makes Jon a dull boy, and fortunately my friend Beach had recommended a place to go, off the beaten track and based on his years of living in town. [I've out-clevered myself, because I have no idea what his nickname means, but that's obviously the name I picked for him.

It was not the place with all the suckers waiting outside. No, that was a different, lesser place. Since there aren't many restaurants in town, we were happy to find Azuma An
both open and completely uncrowded (it was also pretty late after the extra 2 hours of driving, but that didn't stop the people in the above picture from waiting, did it? I have a real fascination with these roadside noodle places; whenever I'm driving I look at them covetously, wishing I could try them all to see if greatness is lurking. Although based on my few experiences with it, I'd say it's not.

The Azumas have done the needful as far as making this look like a country soba shop, but not much more. As befits a more rural location, they had sorta 'private rooms' that are just alcoves off a hallway (second picture here, sorta). And as further befits, the mama was loud and really quirky without ever seeming to talk to us. You can't buy that sort of charm.

You can buy noodles, but they will rarely be this good. We loved the way they were obviously hand-cut, with slightly different thickness and textures throughout. The Y100 super-sizing was for once well worth it. If I had to complain about something, I'd like a stronger buckwheat taste in the noodles, but otherwise these were right there. It's probably just that I don't appreciate the subtleties of beautiful soba noodles.

For some reason I was very appreciative of the view from the bathroom. Can't explain it; wasn't beer talking either.


Let's get a quick closeup of those nooldes to take us home.

I washed my hands first, I promise.
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