Matsumoto Hajime (松本肇) used to run Masutomi, a soba restaurant near Sanjo Higashiyama.
Your location, along the Shirakawa river, has had a close connection with Kyoto’s traditional industries such as dyeing, for quite some time…
There used to be five yuzen dye houses here. It’s said the water here is purified by the sands of the upper Shirakawa, and the pH content is between six and seven, a mild alkalinity supposedly ideal for washing out the glues used in yuzen dyeing. It also helps bring out the colours properly.
Down the river a way, the people at Hirano-ya soaked dried cod in the river water and at Matsuba, by Yamato Bridge, they claimed the river water made their herring soba so good. The slightly alkaline water did naturally as good a job as rice bran on the impurities in the noodles. And all this resulted in Imaho and Matsuba sobas, two of Kyoto’s famous products.
There was a time when eels [a delicacy] could be caught in these waters, and there were loaches… and further upstream there were fish for the taking. All these were incorporated into famous local dishes like chazuke unagi.
But once the yuzen houses started using chemical dyes, you couldn’t use the water for making soba any longer. The natural dyes that were once used would dissolve and disappear, but the chemical dyes changed the color of the water, and made it unusable. Apparently when the yuzen houses tried to use other water sources, like well water, to wash out the dyes, the colors weren’t the same. So they weren’t willing to go elsewhere. Both Imaho and Matsusoba had to move their establishments to Arashiyama. I remember lots of quarrelling when the restaurants moved out. The yuzen people didn’t leave until the mid-sixties when environmental problems were a big issue.
It’s a beautiful river now with lots of fire-flies…
Yes, the fireflies disappeared for a while, but after the chemical dyers users cleared out, they came back.
When did you open this restaurant?
1953. Traditionally, the main branch of our family sold rice. The name comes from the masu [a small wooden box] used to measure rice. The wife of the household set up a side business on the east bank of the Kamo River. My grandmother used to call Nawate Street [one block in from the Kamo River] the Yamato Highway, It was the road that led to Nara. When they built the Minamiza Theater right next door to her place, she made it into a tea house for actors. It served nyumen [hot noodles] in winter and somen [cold noodles] in summer.
Where were you born?
Just past the place which is now a Chinese restaurant on Shimbashi Street, there was a big tea house called Masuya. The house was vacant during the war, when the government went about buying up land at ridiculously low prices. When I came back from being a soldier the house was gone. No matter how I tried to get it back, nothing ever came of it… around there, before there was a road along that part of the Shirakawa, it was all houses stretching far back, all connected by narrow alleyways.
When everyone was away, they put a road in, saying the river should be accessible in case of fire… it used to be a really nice place. There were houses on both sides of the river. The Tatsumi Bridge was much smaller than it is now, and at the base of it was Tatsumi Shrine – a very tiny shrine – and right next to it was a little shop that sold boiled eel, all freshly caught in the river. Beside that was a jinrikisha dispatcher. That was in the 20s and 30s.
You started a coffee shop when you came back from the war, didn’t you?
Yes. I worked for the Hankyu Department Store in the pharmaceutical division. When I came back, the war was still going on and frequent air attacks on Osaka made it impossible for me to go there. So, they had me work in a place called the “80-cents store” in Kyogoku in central Kyoto. The son of a traditional sweet shop manager worked with me, and one day he came in and said, “Hey, we’ve got some coffee beans stored up. Let’s open a coffee shop.” Coffee was in very limited supply, and knowing we would soon run out of coffee beans, we mixed our stock with black persimmon leaves. I had been in pharmaceuticals, so mixing substances was no problem. Also at that time granulated sugar was a precious commodity, but through the pharmacy we had access to powdered grape fructose, and if we mixed this with sacarine, dulzin and so forth, we could create something close to the flavour of granulated sugar for our coffee.
When the bombing ended, I was sent to Osaka. I had instructions to open a restaurant in Dojima. At that time beef was rationed, so we used roast beef, which had pork additives and therefore wasn’t on rationing lists. Also of course, roast beef is a famous English food. And the Yodo river flowing in front of the restaurant could easily pass as the River Thames. Hankyu also wanted to make a street lined with well-known noodle shops from all over the country. So I did that. Then they put me in charge of a coffee shop gallery and they had me study painting… finally we opened a singing coffee shop. I quit the company when they started talking about up a strip show place…
Hankyu was going to have a strip show?!
They couldn’t put it under the Hankyu name, but at that time Toho was a subsidiary of Hankyu, so I think they opened it under that name. I’m not sure how it all turned out.
Recently I’ve noticed that you’ve been making your own noodles…
After the war, flour was rationed in Kyoto, so a fixed number of noodle manufacturers was established. The result is that all udon and soba noodles in Kyoto are basically alike. Shops therefore worked out their own special flavours for the soup the noodles went into. We had also received all our noodles from one of these makers, but recently they quit the business…
Because of the rising land prices?
Yes, sort of. Making noodles doesn’t move a lot of money and it’s hard work. It doesn’t attract new workers and there is little profit to be made. So they sold the business. They showed us how to make noodles, but when we tried to do it ourselves the noodles came out too hard. We tried all sorts of different mixes of flour. We tried adding potatoes and water to the mix, and using super-refined flour. Finally, we came up with something the Kansai people could accept. Also, when we tried to get soba flour from the producers, they wouldn’t deal with us. Everything they sold went to the big manufacturers. They wouldn’t sell to an independent noodle shop.
Would you like to travel overseas?
Yes. If I could, I’d go to China. They made me go there during the war, but I would like to go there on my own.
This interview was featured in our Kyoto Speaks issue (now sold out).