Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Kintaro Ame

Day eighty-five: Kintaro Ame
Kintaro Ame Honten

Kintaro ame is a type of dagashi (cheap sweet) made in much the same way as those millefiori glass discs that feature so heavily in collectible paperweights. Hot malt syrup is kneaded by hand or machine until it turns into smooth stretchy ropes. The candy is quickly divided into batches to be dyed the different colors called for by the design. The colored bars are then stacked together carefully to create what looks like a hunk of cartoon log. The log is rolled and stretched, becoming thinner, cooler and more brittle.

Because kintaro ame can be made without heavy machinery (but with extra elbow grease), it is sometimes made in public at festivals or other events, where a crowd inevitably gathers in anticipation of the final step: with a dramatic flourish, the candymaker cracks the long thin rod crosswise, revealing the first sight of a recognizable--if distorted--face. As the name indicates, the face to appear most often over the years was that of Kintaro, a fabled boy hero of old stories, but today's kintaro ame are just as likely to depict contemporary characters such as Hello Kitty or Pokemon.

One of the last surviving manufacturers of kintaro ame, Tokyo's Kintaro Ame Honten, has taken modernization one step further: for the last decade, the company has produced batches of candy logos and portraits to order. Custom portraits of newlyweds are a particularly popular twist on the old tradition of giving bags of kintaro ame to wedding guests in order to secure a long and sweet future for the union. Even though the Japanese aphorism "Kintaro-ame no yo da" ("Just like Kintaro ame!") sneers at conformity, it seems that plenty of people want to adopt kintaro ame's charm and auspicious sweetness for their own.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Cream Cheese Kinton

Day eighty-four: Cream cheese Kinton

R-style by
Ryoguchiya-Korekiyo / 両口屋是清,¥500

A stylish cafe in the eaves of the cutting-edge Omotesando Hills shopping center, R-Style is what is sometimes called a wa-kissa, an etymological mash-up of wa, "Eastern" or "Japanese", and kissaten, "coffee shop". Offering
traditional sweets with a modern flair”, the cafe is an offshoot of 370-year-old wagashi maker Ryoguchiya. The menu's hybrid temptations include modernized monaka, a warabi "fondue", and "juices" made of Japanese herbs and kanten jelly.

I chose the cream cheese kinton, a sweet more typically prepared with chestnut or sweet potato. Although the Japanese came late to cheese making and appreciation, this was no anemic Philly spread; the haystack of sieved cream cheese was tart, thick, slightly sweet and aggressively rich, coating my tongue like the worst cold on record. I was starting to feel a little panicky when suddenly a sliver of the koshian (smooth red bean paste) filling cut through the fat like a razor. Unable to taste the koshian, I became attuned to to interplay of the different textures, to the different sensations as the cheese or the paste gave way between my teeth or melted on my tongue. Finally, to clear my head, I ate the garnish, a tiny chrysanthemum leaf cut from
yuzu or sudachi zest--much to the amusement of the middle-aged fashion plates at the next table.

Sunday, October 12, 2008


Day eighty-three: "Bamboo"
Patisserie Sadaharu Aoki, ¥800

Both this gorgeous slab and the matcha-frosted eclairs in my blog header are the work of patissier Sadaharu Aoki. That the eclair shot was taken in Paris and the "Bamboo" one in Tokyo tells you a little something about about Aoki's professional trajectory. He moved to Paris early on in his career and soon made it big with three shops of his own known for creative but immaculate pastries that marry French technique and Japanese flavors--e.g. wasabi ganache or black sesame macarons.

Having triumphed overseas, Aoki finally opened two branches in his hometown. And thank heavens! After paying in euros for my last Aoki fix, a trip to the glamorous Tokyo shop was almost like visiting the Hostess factory outlet. In Paris I had bought only a few macarons and some cut-price dinged-up chocolates, but here I was able to indulge my curiosity about "Bamboo", one of Aoki's signature pastries.

"Bamboo" is a moist, many-layered slab of pastry, pastes, liqueurs, creams, and powders. I was so intimidated by the shop that I failed to transcribe the list of components, but the predominant flavors were chocolate, hazelnut, and green tea. Perhaps all the mochi and anko of the past two months has recalibrated by palate, but I found "Bamboo" to be too much of too many good things. It was enjoyable but not something I'd eat often--which is probably the best conclusion to draw about an $8 slice of cake.

Lucky, lucky Clothilde at Zucchini and Chocolate got to hang out with Aoki in his kitchen!

Saturday, October 11, 2008


Day eighty-two: Dōgu

Since I have vague plans to try my hand at making some simple wagashi on my own once I leave Japan, I've had to invest in some dōgu (tools) to go with my zairyō (ingredients). Throughout my trip I've collected a surprising amount of great stuff at the ¥100 shop (the Japanese dollar store), but today I made a last-minute run to Kappabashi Dori, Tokyo's famed street of restaurant supply stores.

I picked up some pans for molding yokan and other jellies, but talked myself out of a set of expensive mesh sieves. At a handful of shops I bought intricate little cutters like the ones above for making an arboretum's worth of leaves and a fair few species of fish. I also bought small ceramic molds (a comic face, some stylized water patterns) for making summer sweets, but could only oggle the pristine new kashigata (carved wooden confectionery molds) and their many-zeroed price tags.

I also checked out the plastic wagashi at a couple of model food stores, but found that none could hold a candle to the real thing.

Friday, October 10, 2008


Day eighty-one: Dagashi

¥? Priceless.

I usually translate o-kashi as "confectionery" and wagashi as "Japanese confectionery", savoring the old-fashioned airs and graces the unwieldy word implies. Dagashi, on the other hand, is best translated as "cheap sweets", or simply, "candy". Whether old-fashioned or novel, sculpted or lumpen, dagashi is distinguished by bang for the buck; it has always been made if the cheapest source of sweetness available--be that molasses, sweet potatoes, malt syrup, or high fructose corn syrup.

With its intense sweetness and low price, dagashi has always been aimed at impressionable young consumers. Over the years, manufacturers have competed for attention using bright coloring, playful forms, and collectible ephemera. Because dagashi keeps pace with the times, the dagashi of a particular era trigger nostalgia and childhood memories every bit as effectively as a fresh-baked madeleine.

Below are notes on a few of my favorite dagashi encounters. Above is a picture of a particularly disturbing sight--glaring automatons with bad hair and mechanical choppers cutting strips of hard candy outside a dagashi shop in Kamakura. Dagashi, above all, inspires appetite by attracting attention.


ō does not make dagashi, but retails the wares of Tokyo's last remaining producers through a charming little dagashiya (dagashi shop) in the Atre department store at Ueno station. The shop terms its wares "Edo Dagashi", the everyday sweets of old Tokyo, and its appeal to nostalgia and childhood is evident in every detail (see bag logo above).

As I have mentioned countless times in this blog, I am fascinated by kashigata, the carved wooden molds used to shape many types of wagashi; I think of them as a fossil record of lifestyles long since vanished. In the years that I have been looking at kashigata I have seen countless delightful designs (e.g. puppies, toys, sashimi, exotic fruit, cartoon characters) that I simply couldn't picture being served in the refined context of a tea ceremony or other formal gathering.

It wasn't until I visited Mannend
ō that I understood that the same technology used to shape expensive and elegant bean past blossoms or bars of brocaded sugar was also used to make dagashi out of cheaper ingredients for young consumers. I bought a molded Daruma (Bhoddisatva) of popped rice and malt syrup with roughly painted highlights and black beans for eyes (¥220), and a glowering sumo wrestler in his embroidered ceremonial apron, made of compressed ramune (lemonade) powder (¥105).

Ikebukuro, Tokyo

Accessible by either the modern elevated train or the rickety services of Tokyo's last tramline, Kishimonjin has to be one of Ikebukuro's most fascinating temples. The temple is dedicated to a female demon and its grounds are home to feral cats, sculpted owls and a 600-year-old tree known as Kosodate Icho, the child-rearing ginko.

Beneath the ginko's spreading branches a small wooden shack houses a dagashiya run for the last 50 years by Masayo Uchiyama. As a one-woman concern, the shop's hours can be a little erratic, even taking into account that it's closed weekends, holidays, and in rainy weather. The picture above was taken in late afternoon from between the rails of a locked gate on the far side of the temple grounds--the closest I came to the shop on four separate visits.

The Shitamachi Museum
Ueno, Tokyo

One of my all-time favorite small museums, the Shitamachi Museum recreates a square block of old Tokyo's working-class downtown (shitamachi) inside a small building on the shores of Ueno's Shinobazu pond. The recreated homes and business are entirely stocked with Taisho era (early 20th century) items donated by residents of the neighborhood that inspired the museum. Like the ethnic enclaves of Disney's Epcot, the Shitamachi Museum is both patently fake and genuinely affecting.

Among the gathered buildings, the dagashiya has a prominent place. It's a tiny space with every square inch covered in flimsy toys and trading cards, the cases full off sweets, some disintegrated into powder, some still garishly appealing (below center); I was mesmerized by what appeared to be sheets of chewing gum perforated with punchout edible toys that could have been designed by Jean Miro.

None of the sweets is for sale but the collection nonetheless provides a contact high for young visitors (below left) and sustains the childhood memories of older guests. According to the museum flyer, “’Dagashiya’ may be the most nostalgic spot for grown-up people in Shitamachi. The shopkeeper was usual an old widow, whose beloved son must have been killed in the war…”. The shopkeeper and her wares are depicted on the museum's "passport" stamp (above).

The Dagashi Museum
Hirano, Osaka

In a transparent but nonetheless charming attempt to woo tourists, the Hirano neighborhood on Osaka's south side has encouraged local merchants and other establishments to open small public "museums"; the roster includes a "museum" of coffee pots inside a coffee shop, a "museum" of old kitchen implements inside a restaurant, and a confectioner's "museum" of wagashi molds. But why quibble? The collections may not be exhaustive but they have a quirky enthusiasm not often associated with their marble-columned cousins.

The Dagashi Museum is in a spiritual venue rather than a commercial one. Housed in a small room inside the Senkoji Temple, the museum features a long display case (above right) chock full of vintage toys and trading cards once given out by confectioners to encourage the loyalty of their enthusiastic but fickle customers. Also on display is a collection of miniature dioramas depicting Japanese life in the good old days; scenes include a festival, complete with a sweet-seller's cart, and a fully stocked dagashi shop (above left).

Kashiya Yokocho
Kawagoe, Saitama

I wrote about Kawagoe in an earlier post, but it's impossible not to re-mention its Kashiya Yokocho, or Candy Sellers' Alley. The cramped, crooked lane is lined with shops selling dagashi of every description and from every era. There are steamed buns and sweet potato fries, sugar cigars and jelly pipes (above right), deep fried crackers and soft serve icecream. Hard candy emporia abound, some selling plum drops and cough sweets out of rows of apothecary jars, others displaying picture sweets (like the Kintaro ame, above left) in dilapidated wicker baskets. The alley is always choked with tourists, and is equally popular with nostalgic adults and kids high on sugar and novelty.
Despite the steady traffic, a few shops have obviously seen better days (above center).

Thursday, October 9, 2008


Day eighty: Zairyō
Matsumoto Shōten

Since I'm starting to dread my imminent return to the wagashi desert that is southern Oregon, I made a trek to Machida today to stock up on zairyō, or raw ingredients. I learned this term early on in my trip, when my friend Natsuki suggested that if I ever got stuck for things to say in a wagashi shop I could just point and ask "Zairyō wa...?" (in essence, "And the ingredients would be...?"); step two was to nod knowingly as the shop assistant reeled off an incomprehensible list in response.

Several dedicated cooks suggested that it would be worth my time to visit Matsumoto Shōten, a small store packed to the gills with staples not necessarily found in the neighborhood grocery--teas and spices from around the world, a dozen makes and models of sugar, and a mind-boggling array of starches capable of producing a full spectrum of textures.

Despite the size of the shop, Matsumoto's selection is almost encyclopedically thorough; take, for example, katakuriko, a starch made from the wild dogstooth violet, limited in supply and very expensive. The "katakuriko" sold in groceries these days is mostly potato starch, an acceptable substitute in most but not all applications. Matsumoto sells both hon ("true") katakuriko and so-called katakuriko, clearly labeled and at vastly different price points. Many of Matsumoto's products are likewise offered in a range of iterations--higher or lower quality, more or less adulterated, hand- or machine-made--with the full declension of some products taking up a yard or more of shelf space. At Matsumoto you can prioritize either your palette or your pocketbook and shop accordingly.

I bought medium-grade warabi (bracken fern starch for making gelatinous sweets), a few bars of good kanten (freeze-dried seaweed for making gelatinous sweets), a very small packet of pure kuzu (kudzu starch for making...gelatinous sweets), packets of yubeshi and dango mix (squish, squish), konnyaku powder (powdered mountain yam for making savory gelatinous dumplings, but I'll try to sweeten it instead), and boxes of ginger- and yuzu-flavored kuzu-yu mix (just had hot water for an aromatic, gelatinous drink). Altogether, about 4 kilos and $60 worth of assorted white powders.

Less than a week to figure out a good story for Customs...

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Keiran Somen

Day seventy-eight: Keiran Somen

Like casutera and compeito, keiran somen arrived in Japan in the 16th century with Portuguese traders and therefore belongs to the category of nambagashi--literally, "barbarian sweets". The Portuguese prototype is called fios de ovos, or "angel hair", while the Japanese name translates more prosaically as "chicken egg noodles".

One of the most taxing aspects of my confectionery OCD is transcribing and translating the ingredients of each packaged sweet I buy, with some lists running to dozens of ingredients and some ingredients failing to make it into my babytalk dictionary. Keiran somen was a blessed break, composed of exactly two easy-to-translate ingredients: sugar and egg yolk. When you consider that at the time keiran somen were introduced, the Japanese diet included neither chicken eggs nor sugar, this sweet must have been an exotic treat of an almost alien order--like a Moon Pie made of lunar ingredients.

Since Japanese sweet omelettes are usually cooked paper thin (then rolled up like cigars), I initially assumed that keiran somen was simply a sheet of sweet omelette sliced into strands, but the edges seemed suspiciously rough so I dug around for more information. Turns out the process is something else entirely, more akin to state fair funnel cakes, only instead of boiling oil keiran somen makers use a vat of melted sugar; the whipped egg yolk is dribbled into the hot sugar, creating long golden strands. Some makers sell keiran somen twisted into tight ringlets and chopped into individual servings; the package I bought was a big blond tangle on a plastic tray.

I think just opening the bag kicked my LDL score up a few points. The somen was both sticky and unctuous, the texture of each bite as delicate and rubbery as a well-used Nerf ball, the flavor eggy and sweet (of course) but far more intense than expected.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Gion Chigo Mochi

Day seventy-seven: Gion Chigo Mochi
Sanjo Wakasaya, ¥300/3

For more than a thousand years, the citizens of Kyoto have taken to the streets in the thick of hot and humid summer for the Gion Matsuri, a sprawling street festival and costumed parade. Among the requisite festival-foods-on-a-stick are Gion chigo mochi from the Sanjo Wakasaya confectionery (which now makes chigo mochi year round).

Despite the name, Gion chigo mochi are actually made of gyuhi, mochi's more tender cousin (I was once told that gyuhi should be as soft and pliable as an earlobe). Tucked inside the gyuhi is a seam of pale yellow "sweet" miso, a less-salty variety of the fermented bean past more frequently used to make soup. The gyuhi is frosted with kori mochi, glittery flakes of freeze-dried mochi that make chigo mochi appear cool and refreshing.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Mochi Chocolate

Day seventy-six: Mochi Chocolate


Furuya is a traditional Japanese confectioner with a small empire of shops famed for high quality ingredients and a knockout black sesame dango, which they have have been cranking out in more or less the same way for sixty years. But when the company decided to spin off a more contemporary brand they didn't focus on particular ingredients or techniques; Koganean started with a product designer, four essential colors (red, black, green, white), two shapes, and a manifesto:
"Simple is stylish.
'A circle' and 'the square' that are the origin of confectionery.
It is the simple taste to make the material alive.
A stylish package.


All of which adds up to a sweetshop that it not so much modern as post-modern, a single self-conscious outlet in the basement of Shinjuku's posh Mitsukoshi department store where gleaming hard-edged surfaces are embellished with display sweets seemingly laid out using a laser guide: it's wagashi as haute decor. As a exercise in minimalist branding it seems pretty attractive to confectionery consumers I don't often see in prettier or cuter shops. In the fifteen minutes I spent there I saw several stylish young couples buying each other treats and a slick guy in skin-tight black clothes, indoor shades, and a massive silver belt buckle shaped like a crocodile (a wrestling prize maybe?) dropping over a hundred dollars on a gift box.

As strict as they appear in their geometric simplicity, the sweets themselves exhibit a playful hybridity. Cubes of yokan bean jelly come in peanut butter or stawberry, and other sweets incorporate salt, cheese, and, as here, chocolate.
Made of pounded rice wrapped around "straight up chocolate" (a sort of stiff fondant), mochi chocolate was envisioned as "Japanese spirit and Western learning".

Koganean has an attractive English language website at http://www.koganean.co.jp/home2/index.html

Saturday, October 4, 2008


Day seventy-five: Kanfu-tei

¥500 for matcha and namagashi

Easily accessible from downtown Tokyo via the westbound Chuo line, Tachikawa's Showa Kinen Koen (Showa Memorial Park) is a boon to anyone craving fresh air, green vistas, and room to move around. The sprawling park was built on the grounds of a decommissioned military base and opened to commemorate the 50th year of the Showa Era (1976). Walking paths, a small train, and a 14km bike loop connect the park's numerous zones, which include a games meadow, a dragonfly marsh, and a boulevard of towering ginko trees. The Children's Forest is a real threat to my sense of adult decorum; I find it nearly impossible not to dash up the Aztec pyramid or dart around the fog maze, and I get giddy just looking at the undulating white range of trampoline hills (below, left).

While not old, the "Japanese-style" garden feels fully mature, and rewards the attentive visitor with rich textures and satisfying details. The heart of the garden is a large, curvaceous reflecting pond, anchored on its western shore by Kanfu-tei, a teahouse in the traditional sukiya style. At any time of year, Kanfu-tei is a pleasant place to relax and recharge after partaking of Showa's more strenuous pleasures. Late on a tranquil afternoon in early autumn, there's nothing nicer than joining the teahouse's other customers on the porch, watching the dusk gather over the pond and the bats beginning breakfast, as you sip hot matcha and nibble a seasonal beanpaste sweet.

Friday, October 3, 2008


Day seventy-four: Shōgetsu

With my railpass just about to expire, I paused along to way back to Tokyo to visit Shōgetsu, a tiny Kyoto wagashiya that several people had assured me is the best in the city. It was already late in the day by the time I made my way to the north side of the city and found the shop in a maze of residential backstreets.

It was the smallest wagashiya I've ever been in--practically a drive-through widow. There was a customer waiting in the tiny vestibule when I arrived so I hung out on the steps while the assistant wrapped his packages, and tried to make up my mind between the day's offering of two wagashi on display in a tiny window.

Then, with a thud, I remembered that Shōgetsu is one of a number of small Kyoto sweet shops that sell only by reservation. I poked my head through the curtains.

"Your wagashi, it is only reservation?" I asked, using a term better suited to hotel rooms.

The shop assistant looked momentarily confused, then agreed gently: yes, reservation only.

"Ah, that is regrettable," I said, backing politely out the door and trying not to sigh.

I was two blocks down the street and still cursing myself aloud, when I suddenly became aware of a strange noise behind me. It was the shop assistant, running as fast as she could in her wooden geta flipflops, trying to catch up to me but too polite to call out.

"You walk very fast!" she said, smiling, and motioned me back towards the store.

It turned out that due to some miscount there was a single wagashi in need of a good home. I tucked into my orphaned chrysanthemum on the shinkansen back to Tokyo. As promised, it tasted as fresh or fresher than any namagashi I had yet eaten. The flavors were well balanced, and the bean paste was as wet as sand at the water's edge and seemed almost on the verge of collapse. Next time I'll be sure to reserve more than one.

Thursday, October 2, 2008


Day seventy-three: Wasambon
Okada Seitō-Sho,

A few years ago I cut out sugar as part of an extensive elimination diet. It was a rough couple of months; I missed coffee and dairy and booze, but I longed for sugar. In the end, however, the much-anticipated reunion was more slap in the face than comforting embrace: with the first bite I felt a rush of heat as an army of needles tattooed across my tongue, leaving a searing sweetness in their wake. I had forgotten what rough stuff refined white sugar can be.

If only I could afford to upgrade to wasambon, the semi-refined, hand-powdered sugar made in Japan from special Chinese sugarcane.
While it may not be any healthier than the white stuff, it is certainly a better sensory experience, a prismatic sweetness that blooms across the tongue, like a slow unfurling of velvety-soft petals. It's the most expensive sugar in the world, and deservedly so. Wasambon's sole producer is Okada Seitō-Sho, based on a centuries-old farm compound outside Tokushima city on the the island of Shikoku.

My visit today coincided with the absolute slowest time of year at the Okada plant. Things don't really get going until December, when the cane grown for the factory by area farmers reaches maturity. Seasonal workers pull the canes up by hand, protecting the section around the soil line where the sugar is most concentrated. Back at Okada, the cane is
crushed in huge presses. The juice that runs off is heated, purified, and allowed to crystallize very slowly; these crystals will become wasambon. The word wasambon denotes the minimum number of times (three, san) the sugar mass is wetted, kneaded by hand, wrapped in cotton, and drained under weights on a wooden tray (bon) to release the molasses; these days the process is usually repeated 4 or even 5 times to achieve a whiter product more acceptable to consumers and confectioners accustomed to refined white sugar. There are two workers experienced enough to transform the crystallized cane juice into pure, powdered wasambon, and one of them is in his late eighties.

It was a sleepy day at Okada, the countryside still bristling here and there with small patches of delicate cane swaying in the hazy late-summer sun. Since most of the workers were off for the season, the company president was kind enough to tell me a little about Okada's history and take me on a brief tour. The only worker in the cavernous factory was processing a batch of molasses (below left), and the odor wafting from the small vats gave me some notion of the sweet, buttery perfume that must suffuse the whole valley come wasambon time. In an adjacent room, a half dozen women (below right) packed pure wasambon into carved wooden molds (kashigata) to produce small higashi (above); although many higashi are made of a mixture of sugar and some firmer, whiter (and cheaper) starch, these golden nuggets of pure wasambon melt in the mouth with a lavish sweetness and no trace of grit.

Although the factory is a long, expensive taxi ride from the the nearest station, Okada also maintains a small, elegant shop in central Tokushima. Staffed by a pair of jovial and very helpful women, the shop sells Okada's higashi by the bag or box, and wasambon by the kilo.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Yuki Ichigo

Day seventy-two: Yuki Ichigo
Tokushima station, ¥230

Shortly after returning to Tokyo I took a pilgrammage to the train station that I used to pass through on my way to work as a suburban English teacher; in those days it was my habit to take the sting out of a bad day by buying a yuki ichigo from a small stall in the station concourse. Yuki ichigo (lit. "snow strawberry") is basically stawberry shortcake translated into Japanese: a fat fresh strawberry perched on a small disc of cake, smothered in slightly-sweetened whipped cream and tucked up tight under a blanket of downy-soft mochi. Or maybe it's more like a dessert burrito...

Anyway, the stall had moved on and I tried to do likewise. But then today, as I rushed to change trains in Tokushima City, I caught a flash of familiar pink out of the corner of my eye, and suddenly decided that the train could damn well leave without me; nothing would stand between me and my fix. But as in the old days the woman behind the counter saw me coming and had my snow stawberry ready and waiting. I caught the train after all and was able to indulge in one of my favorite hobbies, that of sinking my teeth into something delectable as the countryside rushes by.

As I peered into the window and brushed the powder from my reflected chin I remembered something else. While eating on long distance trains is practically mandatoryin Japan, snacking on local trains is almost unheard of, but once when I was on my way out to work, I boarded the car with a rambunctious group of grandmotherly women. They were evidently on their way to the mountian at the far end of the train line, and had accessorized appropriately with tiny hiking boots, sunhats, and walking sticks, but one woman also had on a red padded vest of the type traditionally worn by babies and carried a large bag full of yuki ichigo. I learned later that later adulthood is considered to be a kind of second childhood, free of responsibilities and constraints, and that donning a baby's vest on your birthday is a sign of that transition.

The "aka-chan" (darling red one, ie baby) and friends found a bank of seats together and proceded to crack open the yuki ichigo, damn the watching eyes of the rest of the car. Their laughter whipped up clouds of powdered sugar that dusted the birthday girl's red vest and wrinkled face. I'm not going to make any pronouncements about the lot of women in Japan, except to say that those who play by society's rules have chosen a very narrow path and that coming to a more open-ended junction in one's life must be pretty exhilirating. When I got off the train to go to work, those women were breaking the rules for all they were worth, kicking their tiny boots in delight and licking the whipped cream from their fingers. I could still hear them laughing as the doors closed and the train pulled away, and that was one day that I bought a yuki ichigo for purposes of celebration rather than comfort.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Botchan Dango

Day seventy-one: Botchan Dango

It was grey and drizzling when I arrived in Matsuyama, a mid-sized city on the island of Shikoku. Not the best weather for seeing sights, but perfect weather for taking a bath, which was just what I came to Matsuyama to do.

The approaching typhoon had already darkened the skies and washed away the pedestrians by the time I left my capsule hotel and hopped a tram bound for Dōgo Onsen, one of Japan's most famous hot spring baths. The theraputic value of the local waters has been recognized and harnessed for more than 1500 years at a number of different sites. The opulent Dōgo Onsen was built in the late 1800s and includes an especially luxurious suite of rooms reserved for the Imperial Family (and only used once!).

The spa has several levels and several different admission packages. The top-of-the-line
¥1500 ticket includes a private changing room, a loaner towel and robe, a tour of the Imperial rooms, entry into an exclusive bath, and a post-soak snack back in the changing room: a cup of tea and a tricolor botchan dango. The eponymous hero of Natsume Sōseki's 1906 novel, Botchan is Tokyo academic who finds himself a fish out of water when posted to a Matsuyama school; he finds solace in the local spas and in the sweet treat that now bears his name. Each of botchan dango's three skewered mochi balls is wrapped in bean paste of a different flavor: green tea, egg yolk, and red beans.

Sunday, September 28, 2008


Day sixty-nine: Casutera
Bunmeido, from ¥105 per slice

In 1543 a Portuguese ship wrecked on Tanegashima, a small island off the coast of Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan's main islands. The surviving sailors introduced the Japanese to an array of wonders, including soap, firearms, and a dense, eggy cake. At that time such cake was known in Portugal as pan de lo and in Spain as bizocho, but when the Japanese were told it came from the region of Castille, they dubbed the delicious import casutera.

Like conpeito and a number of other sweet European treats, casutera found great favor among the Japanese and helped to open doors for Europeans who wished to trade or preach. By the 1630s Japanese authorities had a plan to limit foreign influence without cutting of the supply of desirable goods. In 1636, they built a fan-shaped artificial island in Nagasaki harbor on which to corral the their designated trading partners, the Dutch. Dejima had a single sea gate and one heavily guarded bridge connecting it to shore. (The land around Dejima was "reclaimed" from the harbor in 1904, and asphalt now laps the island's shores; one corner of its famous fan-shaped perimeter is clipped by a major roadway, making it very hard to understand how current plans to "restore" the island to its pre-1906 state could possibly succeed.)

The port of Nagasaki originally opened to foreign trade in 1571, giving its citizens their first taste of imported sugar. When Dejima was built in 1636, sugar accounted for 2.2% of the total Dutch import; it was 15.7% by 1707, and the single greatest import item for most of the Edo period. At least three of the warehouses lining Dejima's single street were used to house sugar; the warehouse pictured below (right) was purpose-built for sugar storage. This sugar was certainly shipped all over Japan, but a great deal of it was consumed in Nagasaki--the local cuisine still has a reputation for being syrupy--and that's where casutera comes back in.

I came to Nagasaki to see Fukusaya (below, left and center), a casutera shop founded 1624 by a Portuguese-taught baker; its current proprietor is the 15th generation. Casutera never contains butter or oil, but depends for its moistness on a large proportion of well-whipped egg whites. Fukusaya's bakers separate the eggs, then whip the whites by hand in large copper bowls resting on rope-wrapped stands. Then then beat in the yolks, followed by brown sugar, white sugar, rice syrup, and flour; the recipe is adjusted slightly according to air temperature and humidity. The cake is baked in an automatic oven (rather than the old-fashioned charcoal-fired hikigama over--according to the company brochure, the only significant break with tradition) and allowed to rest for 24 hours, a period poetically known as "the return to sweetness". Fukusaya's casutera is famed for a particular side-effect of this hand-driven production process; crystals of brown sugar sink to the bottom of the pan and melt into a thin, gritty crust that connoisseurs adore biting into.

Unfortunately, Fukusaya neither offers samples nor sells its casutera in anything smaller that a Costco-sized brick. So I bought my slice instead from Bunmeido, a lower-tier bakery. The cake was light, spongy, sweet--completely unobjectionable but not especially satisfying.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Akafuku Honten

Day sixty-eight: Akafuku Honten

Preface: I spent the six days prior to my visit to Akafuku Honten in the grip of the worst flu I've ever experienced. My daily routine included shivering, sweating, hallucinating, rolling around on the floor, and praying for repatriation and/or death. Eating, however, was not among my activities, except for the handful of raw almonds I swallowed each day just to keep the furnace going. Unfortunately, as I was wallowing in misery my very expensive Japan Railpass was ticking away. So I packed some almonds and the lightest bag possible and left Tokyo at the crack of dawn, bound for Ise, home of Japan's most sacred Shinto site and its most infamous sweet shop. By the the time I dragged into town it was past 4pm; I was sick, tired, and unable to stomach even the sight of the notorious rice balls. So instead of my usual tasting notes I offer some shots of the Akafuku shop, as well as a relevant passage from a draft grad school paper. Oh, and servings range from
¥700 to ¥1000.

On October 19, 2007, Japanese authorities ordered a manufacturer and retailer of traditional confectionery to cease production indefinitely. Food inspectors had found that the company, Akafuku, was systematically falsifying the freshness of its goods by such means as misdating packages, freezing products, and reusing ingredients.

Compared with a rash of recent food safety scandals in the Japanese dairy, meat-processing, and fishing industries, Akafuku’s distribution of less-than-fresh sweets seems relatively benign. Indeed, although the company was found to have followed its dubious practices for more than 30 years, it was a whistle-blower who exposed them, not an outbreak of food poisoning, nor even a customer complaint.

Why, then, did Japanese authorities act so forcefully? Why has the Akafuku story attracted widespread national and international attention? And why do disappointed would-be customers now pose to have their pictures taken outside the shop’s closed doors? These reactions suggest that in Japan traditional confectionery is something other than mere food, and that a confectioner’s transgressions therefore pose a threat to something other than health or hygiene.

So what is Japanese confectionery? This question drives the research proposal outlined in this paper. Using documentary and artefactual evidence, I will begin to “define” Japanese confectionery in terms of its materiality, history, and aesthetics. While I will offer some commonly-accepted answers, I will also seek to complicate these, suggesting field-based activities that could reveal a more thorough picture of Japanese confectionery’s social and cultural relevance. While working to displace cross-cultural comparisons with direct evidence, I will employ theories developed in Mintz’s (1986) history of sugar consumption in Britain to make sense of historic shifts in the significance of Japanese confectionery.

In Akafuku’s case, the confections in question are balls of glutinous rice paste coated with a “jam” of sweetened red beans. Yet they are also the product of three centuries of continuous practice and knowledge transmission, and of historical forces that made possible the combination of indigenous staples and exotic, expensive, refined white sugar. Elaborately wrapped, they are popular souvenirs of a pilgrimage to nearby Ise Jinja, Japan’s most sacred Shinto shrine. And until recently, they were a reminder to sensualists and fatalists alike that sweetness must be savored before the opportunity passes; Akafuku had always claimed that any unsold sweets were destroyed at the end of each day.

Akafuku’s confections, in short, are not just balls of rice, beans, and sugar. Despite being highly perishable goods of negligible nutritional value, such confections are invested with significance. My investigation will seek to uncover how this investment takes place..."

Postscript: Obviously, Akafuku is back in business and going strong. On the day I visited people were waiting up to half and hour just to be seated. Mmmm, infamy...

Friday, September 26, 2008


Day sixty-seven: Omedetō

Mannendō, ¥240

A shop specialty, Mannendō's omedetō cakes are named for an expression of congratulations and modeled on sekihan, a Japanese version of red beans and rice eaten on auspicious occasions; perhaps omedetō are also a playful acknowledgment of the fact that sekihan is the one savory dish regularly made and sold by Japanese confectioners. Here the azuki beans are boiled in syrup and mixed with domyōji, crushed and cooked sticky rice.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Anzu Jeri

Day sixty-six: Anzu Jeri

Kikuzuki, ¥600/bag

The 90-year-old Kikuzuki sweetshop specializes in workaday wagashi, reliable but unassuming treats like these little logs of anzu jeri (apricot jelly)--sweet, slightly bland, and soft as a bee-stung lower lip.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


Day sixty-five: Yuzu / 柚子

Top: Yuzu marmalade
Courtesy of Oya Kazunari's mother

Middle: Yuzu jellies
Ninki, ¥400

Bottom: Candied yuzu peel
Train station shop, ¥420

Also known at citron or Chinese lemon, yuzu is a hybrid citrus fruit that originated in China but worked its way over to Japan many centuries ago. Aesthetically, yuzu got the worst of the gene pool, looking like a wizened grapefruit with terminal cellulite and golden skin marred by green blotches and black speckles. But the skin is full of the most intoxicating of aromatic oils and the flesh is heavy with a refreshing and versatile juice.

Yuzu's perfume and flavor have a complex, honeyed quality that makes other citrus fruit seem one-dimensional. Like all citrus, yuzu has a "sunny" quality, but if oranges conjure up blazing sun on a humid summer day, yuzu is more like an unexpected sunbreak on a grey winter afternoon, a light and warmth that you just want to bask in. And appropriately, some Japanese drop a muslin-wrapped yuzu into the bath on the shortest day of the year.

Although yuzu crazes have sporadically swept both coasts of the US over the past few years, it looks like yuzu products are still not available as they should be, so I'm stocking up while I can. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I ate crushed ice with homemade yuzu syrup on one of the hottest days of the summer. When the weather changed and I had a bit of a sore throat, I soothed is with a hot, gooey drink of yuzu thickened with kuzu starch. I've drunk straight yuzu juice and yuzu-infused liquor. I ate the above marmalade with yogurt, and topped many recent salads with a yuzu-based dressing.

I even bought yuzu-scented lip balm from a venerable Kyoto cosmetics house (think "geisha Sephora"). I fully expect that there will come a day this grim, grey Seattle winter when I will be found curled into a fetal ball, covered in yuzu balm and crooning, "Yu...zu...zomething to me..."

Tuesday, September 23, 2008


Day sixty-four: Kōgeigashi

Above: Kazuyuki Miura at Tokinoka Yawaragi
Below: Kameya Iori

One day when I was talking to a retired sweetmaker, I pulled out a photo of a old-fashioned sweetshop that I sometimes use to get conversation going. He commented on a few obvious aspects of the interior, then pointed out a tiny wizened pine tree on a display stand.

"Know what that is?"

I didn't want to be too know-it-all so I hesitated a beat before answering, "Bonsai?"

"Nope," he said, smiling. "It's candy."

Of course I've see sugar flowers before; I was alive during the '80's and well-behaved enough to get invited to a few weddings, of which my clearest memories feature multicolored sugarpaste extravaganzas. But a tiny tree was something else. With bark! And all those tiny needles!!

Known as kōgeigashi or kazarigashi, the Japanese art of sugar sculpting has a long and high-flying history. According to labels at the Confectionery Museum in Kyoto (where photography of the over-the-top kōgeigashi display was sadly not allowed), realistic sugar trees and flowers were made by kasyo level confectionery artists and presented at the Kyoto Palace whenever a daimyo stopped there. It bears repeating that up until 100-150 years ago, sugar was both rare and expensive, so these offerings were serious signs of respect for authority.

Today's kōgeigashi may be less remarkable in terms of financial investment but they are stunning evidence of the skill and dedication of contemporary confectioners. When I visited Miura-san, maker of the above sakura branch, he excused himself for the evening to teach a sugar sculpting class for advanced confectioners at a local college. A few weeks later I watched two confectioners compete on a national TV show, duking it out to determine who would be crowned the best in the country. For their final test each produced a kōgeigashi creation that would have made a daimyo blush; the loser submitted a crowd of seven roosters perching on various good-luck symbols, while the winner's piece featured a full-sized sugar seagull lifting off from a sugar-crystal-encrusted ocean wave.

Monday, September 22, 2008


Day sixty-three: Ohagi

Named after the small round flowers of the autumn-blooming bush clover, ohagi are associated with Buddhist observances around the autumnal equinox. During the holiday of Higan ("the next world"), the living gather at gravesides to visit with the returning spirits of their ancestors.

Like 90% of Japanese sweets, ohagi are made of sweetened beans and rice, but in this case the rice, unusually, is on the inside; as one of my friends put it, ohagi are "a reversal of natural order", suited to a time when the dead return temporarily to the world of the living. The mochigome (glutinous rice) is soaked and cooked but not pounded, so the individual grains are still perceptible. The ball of cooked rice is blanketed in a thick coating of stiff chunky bean paste (tsubuan). Some ohagi are then rolled in black sesame seeds, or (as above) in kinako, a powder made of toasted soybeans.

At one time, ohagi were made exclusively for Higan gatherings, but like Cadbury Creme Eggs, the seasonal treat was so popular it eventually became available year-round. Another friend, who grew up in a small town in Kyushu, told me that the women in his family used to stick dried fishtails on the tops of secular ohagi, to definitively separate them from those cakes made to comfort and nourish the dead.