M & D are both rather adventurous, which translates to a habit of wandering off on their own for little exploratory reconnaissance missions. I've long since learnt to not panic and stay put (Although when I was 5 I used to imagine myself going up to the information counter at malls to file a lost adult report. It baffled me that the announcements were always for lost children, because I obviously was not lost, my adult was.). This time, I hadn't even noticed M had disappeared yet again, until she turned up and said "I found a place for us to have lunch. It's on this side street off the Yubatake that I just found. Let's go."
The place in question was Mikuniya, a soba (Buckwheat Noodle) restaurant, and after marvelling at the massive bouquet of fresh flowers outside, we popped in to get a table. It was not yet noon, but the queue was already 9 people deep within the store itself. By the perverse Singaporean logic that a long queue of people means the food must be good, we decided that this was definitely the place for us. There was just about enough room for me to squeeze in and get in line while M & D waited outside. Within the first minute a group cleared out and the next table of four was seated, so we had high hopes of the queue moving quickly.
After that came a ten minute wait with no movement whatsoever. The restaurant has about 6 tables plus a small bar counter, and a very strict first come first served policy. Which means that if a table of four leaves and there are two couples waiting in line, the first couple will get the entire table. They will not split what is effectively two tables apart to seat everyone, which means more privacy and comfort for those eating, while those still in line just have to deal with it. We spent a great deal of time willing people to finish their food more quickly and just go already, but it wasn't very successful. One man was literally eating his soba strand by strand.
There was enough time for us to take turns walking to the back of the rather small shop to watch their in-house stone mill grind grains of buckwheat into fine soba flour. The buckwheat is apparently ground at the optimum rotational speed for well-textured soba. I know nothing about stone milling, but it was rather hypnotic to watch. All the soba is made daily using this freshly ground buckwheat and snow melt from Kusatsu's own Mt Shirogane, which is supposed to impart a gentle but unique taste.
After a 25 minute wait, we managed to get a table in the small alcove off the main dining area. By this time, we'd already studied the menu and the other diners very thoroughly, and knew exactly what to order - the big platter of soba we'd seen so many other tables tackle.
D had his usual sake while I got myself a soba beer, and the alcohol came with snacks: candied buckwheat sticks and edamame (Soy beans in the pod).
The edamame was magical. Unlike other places that salt the pods heavily, there was no trace of it here. Then we bit into the beans, and there lay a delicate saltiness, along with the taste of pandan (Tropical screwpine). We don't know how they did it. We were utterly astounded, and ordered another bowl.
I was really excited for the soba beer, because I expected it to be a craft brew produced nationally if not locally. The label was fairly promising in that regard. Then, I turned the bottle over and noticed a sentence in English that was stamped to the side - BREWED AND BOTTLED BY ROGUE ALES, NEWPORT, OR. The Japanese write-up on the back stated that the buckwheat used for the beer had been cultivated in North Dakota. My feelings were cheated, but it was a tasty beer so I got over it.
The Mikuni Soba we'd ordered had a description that said it contained 2.5 servings of noodles, and we'd watched as two waif-like girls bulldozed through a plate, so D was super confident between the three of us we'd be able to finish everything and have space left over. He selectively forgot the family of five struggling to finish their plate of soba, and ordered us the tempura platter. The tempura is fried in cottonseed oil, which is rich in Vitamin E and apparently contained anti-ageing properties. I appreciate how the restaurant attempts to make the battered and deep fried items healthier. Still though, it's deep fried.
The Mikuni Soba (三國そば) platter comes plain, and you have to order your dipping sauces separately. M opted for traditional soba sauce, while D and I went for the two hot broths suggested. Here is the 'Capital' sauce (都汁) - Duck broth and soy, with bits of duck meat and a thick layer of duck fat on top, studded with scallions and chives.
This was the 'Countryside' sauce (田舎汁), a thick and hearty miso-based broth with chicken and vegetables inside.
Our 2.5 portions of soba arrived on a massive plate, and seemed to me somehow bigger than what everyone else had. I called dibs on the duck broth, and finished my first two balls of noodles with much gusto, before slowing down on the third and hitting the wall with the fourth. At the next table, a boy my age was eating an entire plate of Mikuni Soba on his own. ("He's showing off for the girls at his table." sniffed D)
With half a ball of soba left, D very dramatically exclaimed "Finish it or you will bring shame upon our entire family!", which immediately brought this to mind. I totally understood why that guy was eating his noodles strand by strand, and felt bad for having judged him so harshly before.
D: Quick! Eat!
I managed to dredge up enough stomach space, and picked the plate clean. All three of us felt very accomplished and pleased with ourselves at this point.
As we left, we counted the number of people in the queue, which had managed to snake out the door and down the street while we were eating. The line was 37 people deep.