Ryu Ishihara will soon be raising prices on his inexpensive bowls of soba noodles for the first time in nearly a decade, as rising costs and Russia's invasion of Ukraine take an unlikely toll on Japan's beloved buckwheat noodles.
Though seen as one of the most quintessential of Japanese foods - and eaten on New Year's Eve for good luck - a good part of the buckwheat that goes into the noodles comes from Russia, globally the top buckwheat producer.
Russian buckwheat can still be imported, but instability and shipping disruptions have hampered and delayed procurement. That has added to the pain for soba shop owners such as Ishihara who are already suffering as a global surge in commodity prices, coupled with the yen's plunge, has sent prices climbing.
Soba is famous as a cheap meal served cold or hot, often slurped quickly by workers and students in narrow shops that may cut costs by doing without seats. The noodles' low calorie count and nutritious vitamin and mineral content makes them healthy too.
Despite soba's iconic status, Japan in 2020 produced only 42% of its buckwheat needs, according to the Japan Soba Association. The gap is filled by imports, with Russia the third-largest source of buckwheat from 2018, according to the Agriculture Ministry.
In 2021, Russia rose to second, displacing China, and up until February it was No. 1.
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