The Story of Owariya

Text: Aya Ogawa / Photo: Ariko Inaoka, Shuhei Tonami

In 1465, a confectionery shop traveled from Owari Province (present-day Nagoya) to Kyoto, becoming “Honke Owariya.”

During the Muromachi Era, a confectionery shop was established in Kyoto when the ancestors of the proprietor's family arrived from Owari Province (present-day Nagoya), beginning a business that has lasted more than five and a half centuries to the present day. One of our signature treats, soba mochi, was concocted around the end of the Edo Period (the late 1860s), devised by the 13th generation* family head. Since its creation more than 150 years ago, soba mochi continues to be prepared by carefully cooking azuki (red) beans, wrapping them in a soba-flavored crust, and finished with black sesame seeds sprinkled on top. Long loved by the local community for its simple, warm taste, some long-term customers fondly say, "Soba mochi is Owariya-san."

My grandfather, the 14th generation head, came up with soba-ita, thin, crispy, lightly sweetened buckwheat crackers made with a technique similar to producing soba noodles. More recently, soba-warabimochi was devised in the 15th generation, by my father. Warabimochi, bracken starch mochi covered with roasted buckwheat flour. Soba-boru are like tiny cakes mixed with sugar, flour, eggs, and buckwheat flour. And in the 16th generation, as head of Owariya, I began producing karinto, deep-fried buckwheat flour irregularly shaped stubs infused with either cinnamon or sesame and salt flavors. Any of these dessert items go very well as a snack to complement a midday cup of tea or coffee.

* In 1702 the soba restaurant was opened by my ansectore name, Denzaemon. Over the centuries, successive generations have taken Denzaemon as their professional name. The 16th generation— the first female head of the family business— will work under her given name, Ariko Inaoka.

In the Edo Period, soba noodles were sought after by Zen Buddhist monks, all the while slowly gaining popularity with the general population.

In the old days, Zen Buddhist monks were encouraged to carry a handful of buckwheat flour during meditation and training as a food to nourish the mind and body. Back then, milling and noodle-making were done at temples, but when it became recognized that confectionery shops had the tools and capacity of "kneading, stretching, and cutting” buckwheat flour, the shops expanded their realm of business. Over the decades, Owariya has received many orders of soba from the Imperial Palace and Kyoto's Zen Buddhist temples.

Postwar, Owariya expands its restaurants and its menu.

The kanji takara (meaning “treasure”) dyed into our restaurants' noren (the entrance curtain of a Japanese shop) comes from the word “horai” meaning soba. During the Muromachi Period, gold leaf craftsmen sprinkled buckwheat flour so that they could collect the gold leaf scattered on the floor, which once gathered, was sieved so that the gold leaf would remain. Soba's reputation has evolved towards horai because it is has “auspicious” qualities, connecting itself with gold (which is a treasure). Thus the New Years Eve custom of eating soba became popular throughout Japan. Owariya's signature menu item, horai soba, was developed in the postwar period by the 14th generation owner. Owariya produces more than 15,000 noodle dishes for indoor dining and takeout for cooking at home the last three days of the year.

As a full-fledged restaurant, the menu has expanded with different items, some classic, some unique, and while new branches have opened so people in other parts of the city can enjoy soba, Owariya has maintained a high level of standard for all its ingredients . The kelp is from the island of Rishiri, an extinct volcanic island off the north coast of Hokkaido, while Owariya's buckwheat is nurtured in Otoineppu, Hokkaido. We select first-class ingredients and fan them out to our three Kyoto restaurants. One of our branches is on the seventh floor of Takashimaya Department Store, opened by my father, the 15th generation. He opened the restaurant only on the condition that the developers dig fifty meters underground to access the groundwater, this being the foundation of our soup stock. This is essential for the health and taste of our dishes, and why we take so much pride in our place in Kyoto's diverse restaurant universe.

The Healing Nature of Soba

A photographer and the 16th generation to run the family business in its “modern” era, Ariko Inaoka has a keen interest in the relationship between Kyoto's natural elements and the soba her restaurant produces. As societies evolve to a more complex, humane relationship with the Earth, she is eager to share the recuperative powers of buckwheat soba. Soba heals and nourishes people's bodies and minds so much that it was the preferred meal of Zen priests in their meditative practice. Owariya has been serving the city of Kyoto since the Muromachi Period, growing like a large tree interconnected to its environment and people. It is our hope that the natural blessings of the city's underground aquifer continue to nourish our daily existence. We have deep gratitude to the land here, valuing it as a source of our sustenance.