Japan’s low-cost soul food noodles could be victims of the Ukrainian war

Tokyo — Ryu Ishihara plans to raise the price of cheap soba for the first time in nearly a decade, as rising costs and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are unlikely to hit Japan’s beloved side.

Considered one of the most typical of Japanese food and eaten on New Year’s Eve for good luck, most of the buckwheat that goes into noodles comes from Russia, the world’s number one buckwheat producer.

Russian buckwheat can still be imported, but instability and transportation disruptions have hampered and delayed procurement. Coupled with the depreciation of the yen, it has become more painful and higher for soba shop owners like Ishihara, who are already suffering from soaring global commodity prices.

Soy sauce, flour, vegetables used to topping tempura, and even fish used in soup are all costly.

“Suppliers have done everything they can, but this time the situation is so bad that there is no way to avoid price increases. Sometimes you have to raise 10-15%,” Ishihara said in a small store, steaming behind the scenes. Said while standing up.

Soba is famous for its cheap meals, whether cold or hot, and is often eaten quickly by workers and students in small stores, and the lack of seats has the potential to reduce costs. The low calorie content of the noodles and the high nutritional value of vitamins and minerals make the noodles healthy.

Ishihara’s prices range from 290 yen ($ 2.25) to 550 yen, with additional charges such as tempura and rice sets.

“Now, the war has raised the cost of importing buckwheat,” he said.

According to the Japan Soba Association, despite its iconic status, Japan in 2020 produced only 42 percent of the buckwheat requirement. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, this gap has been filled by imports and Russia is the third largest source of buckwheat since 2018.

Chilled soba
Cold soba box set from a convenience store in Tokyo or “convenience store” on September 11, 2015. (ChrisMcGrath / Getty Images)

In 2021, Russia rose to second place, replacing China and staying first until February.

After that, it invaded Ukraine and helped the commodity prices soar, but during that time, the Japanese yen plummeted to the lowest price in 20 years. In addition, sanctions and crackdowns on Russia’s banking system have frozen Moscow from international finance, making it more difficult to settle some accounts.

As a result, the purchasing department of Nichiwheat Flour Milling Co., Ltd. in Matsumoto City, a traditional buckwheat producing area in Nagano Prefecture, has become a headache for buckwheat importers and flour millers such as Hua Yue.

Her company imports buckwheat seeds in bags of 800-1,000 tonnes from other countries, including Russia and China, but does not disclose the exact amount or proportion each country will provide.

So far, the biggest problem has been the 30% rise and delay in Russian buckwheat prices over the past six months, partly due to the export suspension resolved last year.

With Russia producing half of the world’s buckwheat, the problem means that demand will shift to China, the second largest producer. However, prices could rise further as China cuts buckwheat production each year.

“So it can be difficult to eat soba in low-priced places,” she added.

Ishihara’s loyal customers, such as Keidai Fukuhara, who come twice a week, shrug higher prices. But even they may have limits.

“It’s still okay,” said the 27-year-old office worker. “In other words, if it’s around 500 yen”

($ 1 = 128.65 yen)

By Elaine Lies and Akiko Okamoto