Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Soba and Time

Welcome back to JJNN

Yet again today I feel a lot like translating old Japanese stories. This one is called Toki Soba (Time and Soba) and is an old rakugo story. I got the original Japanese from:


Time and Soba (Toki-soba)


During the Edo period in Japan there were soba carts that were known as two-eights. They were known as two-eights because one bowl of soba cost (2 times 8) 16 mon (mon was the unit of currency that was used during the Edo era).

One evening, as happens many evenings in the big city, a man comes up to one of the many soba selling carts.
“Oh good! Soba.”
“What kind of soba do ya got? Hmm... You have both the hot and cold soba. I think I will go for the hot soba because I need something to warm me up on such a cold night as this.”
“Coming right up.”
“How’s business?”
“It’s not going very well now.”
“Really? That’s great.
“What? I said it’s not going very well.”
“That’s great though. If someone has good luck, they will soon find their luck has turned bad. The same goes for people with bad luck, it will soon change for the better. That is how the world works. Don’t worry. It is called business because it keeps you busy after all.”
“I guess you are right. I will have to remember that.”
“I love your cart’s lantern. It displays your shop’s symbol so prominently. Your shop does have a great symbol. An arrow hitting a target has a lot of meaning. I have a feeling that you are going to make a lot of money tonight. I think I will come looking for your symbol again another night as well.”
“Thank you very much. Here is your soba.”
“What? You already cooked it? I wish all soba carts were like this one. I am very impatient so when I have to wait I get mad. If I don’t get my soba soon after I order it I don’t feel like eating it any more.”

The man just kept on talking.

“Oh! Look at these chopsticks! I love this place. Most soba places use chopsticks that have already been used by other customers. I don’t want to use chopsticks like that, especially if the tips are still wet! No thank you! This place is nice...

“This is a nice bowl. A nice looking bowl helps keep the customers more hungry. It makes the soba look all the more delicious. This soup smells good. You used a lot of fish stock in the soup, didn’t you? It must have been hard to make a soup as good as this one. You’re a good cook if you can get a flavor as good as this. Most two-eight's soups are far too salty. I eat at a lot of places but this is just good.

“Man, these soba noodles are thin. This is just how the noodles should be! Some times I come across shops that sell soba noodles as thick as udon (another type of Japanese noodle). It’s not like I am going to a soba shop as a replacement for a good bowl of rice, just as a light snack. That is why soba noodles have to be thin.

“This is the first time I have had such delicious soba! I am not just making this up or anything! Oh! Look at this chikuwa (tube shaped fish-paste cake). It’s so thick! Are you OK? Are you sure you can cut the chikuwa this thick and still make a profit? There are places that pass off a wheat-gluten bread for chikuwa. I hate that. That type of food is for sick people. This is the real thing.

“Man, this soba is great. I have never eaten better soba in my life. But, I just ate some disgusting soba at another stand and just came here to get the bad taste out of my mouth. I don’t think I can eat any more tonight.”

“I understand, sir”

“How much is it?”

“Including all the toppings, it is 16 mon.”

“I only have small change, so please put out your hand and I will put my money in your hand.”


“16 mon, right? 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8... What time is it?”

“Hmm, it’s 9.”

“10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16... Good bye!”

The man got up and walked away.

Another man, who had come earlier to eat some soba, had seen the whole proceedings.

“What the hell. That guy sure could talk. As soon as he got the to soba cart he started talking and he didn’t stop until he left. Couldn’t he just shut up and enjoy the soba?”

The man thought back about the experience.

“The man started out with saying that he was cold and needed to warm up. It’s not like it’s the soba cook’s fault its cold. Then he asked about business. The cart owner said business wasn’t going so well, but that guy said that was good because luck changes, or something like that. He also said something about how business keeps people busy. Then he went on about how he loved the cart’s symbol and how he thought the owner of the cart was due to make a lot of money. He talked way too much. He went on about the chopsticks, the bowl, the soup and even the chikuwa. With how much he talked, I thought that he was going to get up and run away before he paid the bill, but he did pay the bill.

“I thought it was going to make for a more interesting night! Damn it! There has to be something. Let me think it over again. First, the man asked how much the soba costs. Why would he ask that? Everyone knows its 16 mon. He said he only had small change so he would put the change into the owner’s hands. But, the way he was counting out the money was almost like a kid would do. He counted to 8 and than asked what time it was. The owner told him and he continued to count. Something is off! Why did he ask what time it was? Why would he do that while he is paying the bill?

“I know something is off! He asks the price, he is told it is 16 mon and he starts to count it out. When he gets to 8 he asks the time. He is told that it is 9 and he keeps counting. Why does he ask the time? What a second! He asks the price and is told it is 16 mon and he starts counting. When he gets to 8 he asks the time and is told that it is nine, but he starts counting again from 10! I knew he was cheating the owner! He is paying one less mon for the soba than he should! Damn that guy is good! I will have to try this myself!”

The man didn’t have enough small change to do the trick that night so he had to go home that night. During the next afternoon he got enough small change and left early to find a soba cart.

“Hey! Soba cart! How many times do I have to yell for you? I have been chasing after you. What types of soba do you have? Oh, you have the hot soba and the cold soba. Well I will go for the hot soba. It’s cold so I need something to warm me up.”

“What? It’s actually warm today.”

“Hmm... You’re right. Today is warm. Yesterday night was cold.”

“Yeah. Yesterday night was very cold.”

“How’s business?”

“I actually have a lot of people that visit me every night for my soba, so things are going well.”

“Really? (Damn it! I can’t say what that other guy said!) But, you can’t let your guard down! If you have good luck it will soon turn bad. If you have bad luck, it will soon turn good. That is how the world works. Don’t worry. It is called business because it keeps you busy after all.”

“You’re right. I will keep that in mind.”

“I think you understand what I am trying to say. Oh, look at your cart’s lantern. You have a nice symbol on it. It’s an arro... Err... No it’s not. It is a circle around the Chinese character for grandson (In Japanese that can be read the same as a word that means the “total loss of money”). What? Was this cart originally owned by your grandfather? What a... good name. I have a feeling you are going to make a lot of money tonight.

You know I am very impatient. I want to see what I ordered in front of me soon after I order it. If I don’t see my food soon... I guess it doesn’t really matter. A good person from Edo needs to know how to wait. But, no! You’re making me wait here! Where is my soba?”

“I’m so sorry. I ran out of hot water so it is taking more time than usual to make your soba. But, don’t worry, I just finished.”

“OK! Finally soba! Oh! Look at these chopsticks. I love this place. Most places have chopsticks that have already been used. I don’t want to use chopsticks that other people have used. Especially ones that are still wet. This place... Hey! These chopsticks are used! Well, I guess it’s not such a big deal.

“The number one rule for soba shops is that they have to have a good looking bowl. A good looking bowl makes people want to eat more soba because the soba looks so good in the bowl in the first place. I have never seen a bowl like this in any other soba place... This bowl is disgustingly dirty! It’s also cracked! How does the soba stay in the bowl? I guess the bowl doesn’t really matter if the soba tastes good.

“This smells great. It smells like you used a lot of fist stalk in your soup."

He drinks the soup and wants to spit it up again, but stops himself barely.

“Put some more hot water into my soup please. This has a strange flavor. I have eaten salty soba soup, but I have never eaten bitter soba soup. Well, you know what they say; the most bitter medicine is the most effective. This soup is probably good for my health or something.

“I like my noodles thin. I have seen some shops that sell soba that is as thick as udon, but it’s not like I come to soba shops to eat a full meal. Thin noodles are the best. I hate thick noodles... Hey! These are way too thick! Isn’t this udon? No? It’s soba? I see... It almost looks like the neck vein of a person with beriberi. It’s going to be hard to eat with that image in my head, but I guess I will try any way. Gah! It’s been cooked too long. It’s almost like an udon snake. Well, I have a weak stomach, so this is probably perfect for me...

“Hey, where is the chikuwa? I can’t find it. You did add chikuwa to my soup, right? Ah! There it is. How did you cut it so thin? Did you use a plane? What? You did it with a knife? Really? You’ve got some real skills. I once ate at a soba place that tried to pass off wheat-gluten bread for the chikuwa. I hate that! What’s this? This isn’t chikuwa! It’s that wheat-gluten bread! I don’t believe this place...”

He finishes eating.

“How much does it come to?”

“Including everything that would be 16 mon.”

“I only have small change so put out your hand and I will put the money into it.”


“16 mon, right? 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8... What time is it?”

“It’s 4.”

“5, 6, 7, 8, 9...”

And he ended up paying too much for his soba.

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