This is one of my rare food blogs because I was so obsessed with Okinawa soba during my remote work stint in Naha, Okinawa Prefecture. Below, I’ll outline a few pieces of advice for eating soba and the 3 soba places I went to (which were delicious).
You can save this map of some Naha soba restaurants on your phone and Google Maps works offline as long as you don’t restart the app.
Why Okinawa Soba
At the risk of offending people, I’ll just say it: Okinawa soba is pretty similar to Chinese la mian (拉麵), chewier pulled noodles made with wheat and without eggs. It is far more similar to its Chinese culinary cousin than ramen, the Japanese pronounciation of the original Chinese word la mian. Okinawa’s culinary dishes retain a strong Chinese influence with its many stir fries, lighter broiled soups, and pork belly dishes. The noodles from this region also stand out from other areas in Japan, where soba often refers to buckwheat noodles, the various types of udon, white somen often eaten in summer, and the ubiquitous ramen.
A bowl of noodles serves as both hearty snack for those with a bottomless stomach and a manageable meal for lighter weight diners. Okinawa’s noodles are often served in a lighter broth than tonkotsu ramen, with vertical slices of rich fatty pork, and whatever signature variation a noodle house offers. Of course, many restaurants have also come up with their own creative twists to their local noodles.
An aside: The generic word for noodles in Japanese is soba. Most people mistake “soba” to mean only buckwheat noodles that come mostly from the central part of the main island of Honshu because other types of noodles have specific names (udon, ramen, somen). An example is the first Michelin-starred ramen restaurant in Tokyo, Tsuta, which calls itself simply a noodle house, and refers to all its dishes as “soba” as opposed to ramen.
Where to find the noodle houses
The Okinawa soba experience begins with space. These noodles are a comfort food, served throughout the Okinawa Prefecture. You will find soba along shopping streets, in malls, and right beside houses with steady stream of cars driving into quiet neighbourhoods just to eat. Try them all. The “big” local chains in Okinawa may only be one small notch below the top-ranked restaurants.
In the sleepy semi-tropical city of Naha, soba houses are half the time entirely detached homes or buildings with a generous amount of seating for diners to fan out wherever they like.
How to order and eat
Point to the menu item when a server comes. All the noodle houses I went to in Naha had table service and menus with photos, though I can’t guarantee this in some more venerable establishments kept going by genki (healthy) elderly. Assuming table service, the server will come to take your order, and you can point to the photo you want. The photos in Japanese menus are usually quite accurate. You can see the Japanese definitions in the section below.
Help yourself. After ordering, you can help yourself to various items, such as chopsticks, condiments, water on the table or in some cases on a counter. The box of red slices are pickled ginger, which is great for cutting through the fat in the pork. If a place has glasses, like the photo above, you can likely help yourself to drinks. Drinks that you can help yourself to often include water, tea, miso soup, and in some local places often includes juices. Servers will usually provide water (mizu) or hot tea (ocha).
Also, there is no rush to leave. The waiters will leave the receipt at your table after taking your order. This is not a sign to rush you out. Even in Naha, the largest city in Okinawa, most restaurants that I went to were not full. The staff are laid back and friendly. Many individuals or families chatted long after they finished their bowls of noodles. This is entirely different from the ramen bar or standing udon stall culture of faster-paced cities like Tokyo.
Walk around. For me, visiting a noodle house in Okinawa was much more than a bowl of noodles. I usually enjoyed eating in a mini modern museum. I walked around and enjoyed the decor, checked the signatures and photos that lined the walls. Many places also had local pottery pieces or Rikkyu cultural items.
Pro Tip. Buy an Okinawa soba ranking magazine (between ¥500-¥1000) at any convenience store like Family Mart, Lawson, or 7/11. You can tell because the magazine cover has Okinawan soba as a photo and inside is usually about 1 restaurant review per page (with photos, address, and “specs”). These rankings for locals a great reference to narrow down all the options. In addition, look out for guide books that have discounts. I got a guide book that had 50% off coupons for signature or standard Okinawa soba at 20+ famous restaurants (i.e. ¥600 –> ¥300, ¥800–>¥400).
Types of Okinawa Soba
Okinawa soba, like ramen, is open to the creative endeavours of a chef. You could order a plain bowl of soba, topped with scallions. Or, you may walk into a place famous for lamb, tomato-broth, or spicey noodles. To be honest, I am a bit of a purist, so I usually just went for the basic soba to compare between restaurants.
沖縄そば – standard Okinawa soba, which is usually a slice of pork, fish cakes, some red pickled ginger slices (provided or on the table), and scallions
三枚肉 sanmainiku pork belly. Refers to the 3 layers that you’ll see in the cross-section cut including the layer of fat.
軟骨ソーキそば Soki soba stewed pork spare ribs with cartilege
定食: teishoku fixed meal. This comes affixed to other words that indicate the main item (such as curry, soba, etc.). The teishoku part refers to the fact that the fixed meal comes with things in addition to the main item, such as a bowl of rice, 1-2 side dishes or pickles, and maybe soup.
野菜そば / やさいそば: yasaisoba vegetable soba (better for the vegetarians)
ゆし豆腐そば: tofusoba. Tofu soba
Udunyama Gokusai-dori 御殿山 国際通り
Udunyama has over 150 years of history and is situated on a hill bit of a walk from Gibo Station. Fortunately, it has opened up a much more convenient location in downtown Naha for the hungry traveller.
Tobiume Kumoji 飛梅 久茂地店
I didn’t end up trying Tobiume because I only wanted noodles, and the place is more of a sit-down restaurant at night with a minimum order. The minimum order is basically covered if you order a beer and noodles.
Sobe Soba has a famous chili sauce that I highly recommend trying. It is available on the table to add to any dish and also for purchase as jars. The sauce compliments the pork wonderfully.
If you liked this post, you can check out my Naha coffee walk.
Of course, would always appreciate a share! Thanks!