Morioka, Japan (CNN)“Eat more! More!”
The restaurant server’s expression, a contrast to her sweet yet firm shouts, bordered on boredom.
Yet she was relentless.
The soba noodles kept coming.
As soon as I emptied my tiny bowl, she swooped in to fill it with another mouthful, yelling “hai dan dan!”
This scene played out 33 times.
Telling her to stop was pointless.
The tower of empty bowls rose beside me, a monument to my gluten-free gluttony.
There was only one way to ebb the noodle flow — put a lid on my wanko.
Go ahead and snicker, but wanko means “bowl” in the local dialect.
It’s all part of the wanko soba challenge, an all-you-can-eat buckwheat noodle binge unique to Japan’s Iwate prefecture.
Wanko soba’s rustic origins
The origins of this soba bonanza are a bit murky.
Azumaya Soba Shop’s founders say it was born out of the region’s challenging terrain, in the early 1600s.
Due to the high mountains and low temps, farmers in the area’s Nanbu district relied on easy-to-grow soba — buckwheat noodles — for sustenance.
Because soba noodles were viewed as a rustic dish, they were embarrassed to serve it to nobility.
According to Iwate’s tourism authorities, when a lord came to the town of Hanamaki to visit, locals reluctantly served him a just bite-sized bowl of noodles — but accompanied it with a fancy arrangement of dishes.
He thought the noodles were so delicious he kept asking for more.
Thus emerged a tradition of serving soba in tiny bowls until guests were full.
As four centuries passed, it evolved into the wanko soba noodle challenge enjoyed in the prefecture today.
Eating competitions now are held in Iwate twice a year.
Iwate tourism officials say the defending Morioka champion — a woman — slurped back 383 bowls in just 10 minutes.
Getting to Morioka
Azumaya Soba Shop has four Morioka locations. The Ekimae branch is just a two-minute walk from the train station.
For a full list of wanko soba restaurants, visit Japan-iwate.info/noodle/wanko.html.
Morioka is about a three-hour bullet train ride from Tokyo. From Sendai, the Tohoku region’s biggest city, it’s a 40-minute train journey.
Japan’s wanko soba challenge: The ultimate all-you-can-eat noodle binge