Hearty soba in an atmospheric, local noodle joint that’s just a stone’s throw from Ueno Station.
Kashiwa-nan soba - buckwheat noodles with chicken and negi (Japanese leeks). - image © Florentyna Leow
I spend the majority of my time in areas such as Shibuya, Shinjuku, and Harajuku, so visiting the shitamachi (downtown area) of east Tokyo is always such a treat. But Ueno is one of those places I tend to avoid during the day. For the west (park) side in particular, there’s often too many visitors for me, and the hordes of people tend to be overwhelming. The east side of the station, though, is full of charming side streets to explore, and Ueno improves immeasurably after hours when everyone has disappeared back to their respective hotels and hostels. Eating around Ueno at night makes for a nice escape from the glitzier side of central-west Tokyo as well. A fun place to eat here is Okinaan, a stone’s throw from Ueno Station.
The entrance to Okinaan, which strikes me as more dramatic in black and white. - image © Florentyna Leow
The restaurant is barely 100m from the station exit. To get there, take Exit 1 from Ueno Station (the Metro subway, not JR). Once you’re above ground, turn right - you’ll pass Uejima Coffee. At the corner, turn right, and keep walking down the street, staying on the same side. You’ll see Okinaan on your right shortly.
The interior of Okinaan. - image © Florentyna Leow
Okinaan is about as old-school and local as it gets for Ueno. Walking in, I feel like I’ve stepped into a time capsule from 50 years hence. It’s the entire package: the aged wood and bamboo decor; a table with an open hearth in it, with an iron fish and kettle hanging down; a handwritten menu hanging above the front desk and on the back wall of the restaurant. There’s a TV in the upper corner of the restaurant. Some seated alone stare at it throughout their meal. Older salarymen in suits shrug off their heavy peacoats, slump back into their seats, and nurse their beers, picking at plates of tofu skin. When the waitress takes your orders, she writes them down vertically - rather than horizontally - with a pencil, on tiny pieces of paper. The old man behind the cash register still tots up your total with an abacus. Depending on the crowd, there may be smokers - it’s pretty old-school after all - but it’s usually not as bad as it seems.
An iron fish hanging over a kettle. - image © Florentyna Leow
No tourists are to be had here, but everyone else in the shop is above the age of 60. It is surprisingly uncrowded at 6pm on a Friday evening, though more diners begin filtering in at half six. Okinaan does close at 8pm; plan on a relatively early dinner. If you linger too long over the dregs of your meal (i.e. the remaining glass of water), they will tell you to leave with an apologetic sumimasen. Do not tarry too long.
The English-language menu. - image © Florentyna Leow
They are used to non-Japanese: we are handed English menus straightaway. The English menu is less comprehensive than the Japanese menu - as is usually the case - but it covers the essentials.
Uncovering the heap of soba noodles underneath the surface. - image © Florentyna Leow
“I like soba shop curry,” said my dining companion. “It’s different from the curry you get at other places, like Coco or wherever. It’s a voluminous bowl of curry, a heap of noodles lurking below the surface, dotted through with pieces of pork and some pieces of negi (Japanese leek). Everything is blanketed in a thick, sweet-savory curry, more akin to a curry swamp than soup, the kind that slides slowly off your spoon and back into the bowl. The noodles are merely a vehicle for this sauce. This is not the elegant, carefully-considered bowl of soba some restaurants aspire to; this is working-class soba, hearty fare meant to warm you up completely on a winter’s night like this.
My friend had a huge, comforting bowl of kashiwa-nan soba - chicken and batons of negi (Japanese leek) with buckwheat noodles in soup, which you see at the top of this article. This demands quick slurping. Hot soba noodles tend to become soggy quite fast when left in the broth too long.
Assorted vegetable tempura. - image © Florentyna Leow
If you’re with a friend, the assorted vegetable tempura is great for sharing. There’s at least two of each vegetable, so there’s no covert glances at a lonely shiitake mushroom or eggplant, no plotting to kill your dining companion for the last piece of pumpkin. Okay - I jest, but you’d be surprised at how few places take this into consideration for sharing plates.
Everyone here is probably retired. - image © Florentyna Leow
Do I wish I had eaten my friend’s kashiwa soba instead? Yes. I was curious about the curry soba, since so many people seem to love it. But I think it misses the point of soba, which for me should taste primarily of itself, or at least not be completely obscured by the sauce. A thick curry sauce like this needs something weightier to stand up to it, so I’d ask for udon (wheat noodles) instead. Order the curry soba if you really love that dish. Alternatively, try one of the other broth-based soba dishes.
Okinaan is a good choice for a meal near Ueno Station, especially if you love hanging around watching old people nurse their drinks, looking like they’ve taken everything the world has to throw at them. You will not find the best soba in the city here, but you will find some decent grub in an atmospheric, historic little place. And most importantly, at the right time of the day, no queueing or waiting in the cold. That’s all I need from downtown Tokyo.
Name in Japanese:
3-39-8 Higashiueno, Taito-ku, Tokyo
10:30～20:00 (L.O. 19:30. Closed Sundays)
:: Read customer reviews of Okinaan on TripAdvisor
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