Number 4 of “Ten things I love about Japan”.
Soba are not the first, nor even the second kind of noodles that I had in Japan, but they've long since become my favourite. All sorts of things seem wrong to a Westerner, encountering soba for the first time: the noodles are grey; in summer, you eat them cold with a dipping sauce; and why is that guy over there drinking the cooking water with his leftover sauce, as if it were tea, at the end of the meal? One needs to get over each of these things. I took my time about some of them: every one of those days was wasted, in that sense.
So to the basics: the restaurant dishes are soba served in hot flavoured broth, of many different kinds — basically a winter dish, although it's also served in summer — or served cold on a bamboo tray, a bit like a sieve, with a dipping sauce and wasabi and negi (think leek) on the side; the noodles themselves are probably dressed with some nori (dried seaweed). There is nothing like cold soba as a refreshing meal in the seemingly endless, humid summer. There are many variants: my own favourite, and a common one, is tenzaru soba in which a small selection of tempura with its own dipping sauce is provided on the side.
There is yaki-soba as well, where the noodles are fried on a kind of barbeque hotplate, but this is a different sort of thing: food for street-parties, for walking around.
Sit-down soba is subtle. Like some other Japanese foods, texture is a big part of the experience, and the best soba is handmade and a bit rough: you find it in small places in the hills where you can't read the menu, or in homes where people still make it for themselves. The noodles are (usually) thin and long, like (but unlike) spaghetti, and made from a mix of buckwheat and wheat flour; I do not know the proportion. There's a special kind that's green, flavoured with green tea — I have always found it a bit gimmicky — but your basic soba is an uncompromising glistening-when-wet grey. Unlike udon, where you can kid yourself that you're eating a deviant kind of pasta, soba sits there looking alien. You need to learn its language. It is saying “go on, eat me, you will not regret it”. And neither you will.