had the first line of this story written before I even got out of the car. “Dogs smell your fear,” it said at the top of my notebook. “But soba smells your anxiety.” I'd been snarled in L.A. traffic, late on my way to meet Sonoko Sakai, the woman waiting to show me the way of soba, but there was one thing I already knew about the meditative culture of Japanese noodle making: Stressed out and road-ragey is not the way of soba. If ramen is the pork-fat shock-and-awe of the noodle world, soba is what philosophers slurp—a simple buckwheat noodle, a cuisine of purity and contemplation. A soba restaurant's menu may include a tray of noodles served with tempura, or maybe a tangle bathed in a lean, coffee-dark duck broth, as austere as duck gets. But always, there will be an offering of plain soba, just-cooked, chilled cold, served with only a small cup of seasoned stock for dipping. It's completely fireworks-free, but in simple things lie complex pleasures, if you choose to discover them, which is why you often find this most naked of dishes offered as a course on its own in refined kaiseki tasting menus. Slip a few strands between your chopsticks and dip them—ideally no more than a third of their length, to really taste the noodle. Slurp them up, feeling the way they glide toward you; the Japanese have a word for what you're looking for—nodogoshi, which means “good throat-feel.” Chew, and think about their texture—how firm, or yielding, or firm-but-yielding. Take in their flavor—do they taste nutty and earthy or round and mild, like buckwheat or wheat? Do this over and over, learning to notice the unnoticed: how evenly the master cut each strand; how much sauce clings to them; how the noodles change from day to day, season to season, as the flour ages and new crops replace old. Buckwheat is second only to rice as the traditional grain of the Japanese diet; the word soba means both “buckwheat” and “noodle,” so it is the foundational pasta of Japanese cuisine. It is a craft perfected through meditative union between dough and maker, and an art when there is an eater to receive and make sense of it.