Interview with Kawamura Flour Mills: Bond and Trust Supporting Soba Noodles in Kyoto
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Interview with Kawamura Flour Mills: Bond and Trust Supporting Soba Noodles in Kyoto

Text: Minori Mukaida
Photo: Ariko Inaoka

In Kyoto, there is an association called “Kyo Soba Nihachi-kai” (hereafter “Nihachi-kai” *1). The association is made up of restaurants that specialize in homemade noodles, and Kawamura Flour Mills delivers high-quality ingredients to these restaurants. We interviewed Kazuo Kawamura, the third generation chairman of the company, and Hiroya Kawamura, the fourth generation president, who have been involved in Kyoto’s soba industry for generations since its establishment in 1921.

The Kawamura Flour Mill is located alongside the Biwako Canal, an avenue lined with cherry trees. This area used to be quite industrial–businesses utilizing the canal for flour-milling, noodle-rolling, lumber-making, steel casting, among other functions–when a hydroelectric power plant was built in the Meiji Era in 1895.

Has the mill’s location always been here?

Yes, it has. It is very beautiful when the cherry blossoms are in bloom. I heard that the first-generation chairman founded the business in the Taisho Era when he put up his own utility poles for establishing electricity. (Chairman Kazuo)

Machinery from the time of the company’s founding in 1921 and custom-made wooden equipment. All are carefully maintained, retro and tasteful.
Buckwheat seeds produced in Otoineppu, Hokkaido. The soba contracted to Owariya restaurants and products are nurtured from buckwheat seeds into plants and milled here, with fine adjustments made according to the season and weather.

What kind of an association was Nihachi Kai?

Nibachi Kai got its start when Kyoto’s soba shops assembled for an event inaugurating the first “Taste of Kyoto Exhibition.” (*2) at the city’s Takashimaya Department Store. This was in 1956, around the time my father became president. This is a photograph of the Exhibition, and this was the design. Each participating group collaborated to come up with an exhibit and menu based on their themes. (Chairman Kazuo)

It’s rather unusual to find a group of people in the same industry socializing together on good terms in Kyoto.

Apart from the Nihachi Kai, there was also the Owariya Kai. We, the contractors who came in and out of the company, also participated, and we looked forward to going on a trip twice a year. Here is a picture. (Inside an aged box is a commemorative group black and white photo with sepia tones. One of the photos was dated three days before the birth of Ariko.) It was founded in 1968, and the members included Ikeuchi-san of Ibaragiya, Nakagawa (the egg vendor), Katagishi (the tofu vendor), Ueda-san of Toriyasu (poultry vendor), etc. I think there were fifty of us altogether. It feels like a dream now when I think back on that time. I would be delighted if you could organize another meeting! (Chairman Kazuo)

Is there anything you appreciate about being in a family business that has been operating for generations?

Because we are a family we are able to make decisions quickly, which is something that large corporations cannot often do. I think it is an under-appreciated aspect of family operations that we are able to candidly consult with each other about where to focus our energies on the specific directions we want to take.
We have a sense of urgency now to do something new, so we have prepared 100% buckwheat soba and purchased a small mixer. Since the pandemic began, we began producing a wide variety of products. I think it is an advantage that we are now able to meet the needs of our customers. (President Hiroya)

What do you value in your family?

Healthy, strong bonds. Also, trust is important. My predecessors used to tell me that while trust takes a long time to build, it can be lost in an instant. (Mrs. Michiko, wife of the chairman)

The valuable ephemera that Chairman Kawamura preserved and showed us has the patina of historical archives: the menu and displays for the exhibitions, the collection of ukiyoe featuring soba, the Nihachi-kai stamp rally card, and even the menu for Owariya’s 15th century name-change celebration. The third generation has done a wonderful job safeguarding legacy. And the fourth generation has reacted to the pandemic in a proactive fashion to diversify its business and the needs of its clients. It’s evident that a careful and scrupulously honest work ethic has passed down through the generations, earning the trust of Kyoto’s buckwheat soba shops. I’m looking forward to that next group photo memorializing the present generation’s best efforts.

*1 Kyoto Soba Nihachi Kai
*2 Started in 1957 out of the spirit of those who inherited a long-established restaurant to pass on Kyoto’s food culture and connect it to future development (excerpt from the Kyoto Takashimaya blog)

Honke Owariya’s Soba