Thursday, July 31, 2008

Young Ayu

Day ten: Young Ayu / 若 鮎

仙太郎 (Sentairō?) at Ikebukuro Tobu, ¥180

For more than a thousand years, fishermen in Gifu have used trained cormorants to catch
ayu, or sweetfish, during the summer months. Fishing takes place at night, and the fish are lured towards the riverboats by torches. The fishermen wait onboard as the birds dive among the schools of small fish, then return to the boat to cough up their catch (a ring around the bird’s throat keeps it from swallowing the fish). Crowds flock to Gifu to watch from the banks or hired boats. I’ve always wanted to go, and this year I just might make it!

In the meantime, I have this sweet in the shape of a young ayu. It’s one of a number of pancake-based sweets, a category of which I know very little. The pancake if folded to form the ayu’s body, and pinched to give it a little tail. A filling of sticky mochi glues the whole thing together, and the features are added with a little branding iron.

In Hideyuki Oka‘s marvelous book, “How to Wrap Five Eggs: Traditional Japanese Packaging”, these very same sweets are shown packaged for sale in a toy fisherman’s creel made of river reeds.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Kuzu Mochi

Day nine: Kuzu Mochi / 葛餅

Wa-on at Ikebukuro Tobu, ¥189

Some of my most vivid mental images from growing up in the South are of abandoned rural hollows where kudzu covers every tree, light pole, building, or busted car like a glossy green blanket. Seeming to grow as you watched it, kudzu was both creeping and creepy, and I heard more than one story about it smothering some poor, passed-out drunk.

Imagine my surprise when I learned that processed kudzu is both delicious and useful as a thickening agent similar to kanten and konnyaku. Kudzu-based sweets are a staple of the Japanese summer. Kuzu mochi is a kudzu version of the more common rice-based paste. It is flavored or filled with various ingredients, including summer fruits; this grape version seems to have come from Kanazawa. I’ve more often seen it wrapped in a cherry leaf, but the bamboo leaf used here is both a better match and an elegant symbol of freshness (that strip of fake grass in take-out sushi used to be a piece of fresh bamboo leaf, a visual indicator of whether the sushi was past its prime).

I ate it chilled and it was completely gorgeous—fairly soft, completely smooth, not so much chewy as slippery. Can something man-made be described as ripe? The big fat grape lurking in the center was as soft and gooey as those in a tin of fruit salad, but tasted of grape rather than corn syrup.

Shop of the day: “General Therapy”, which advertises a full range, including aromatherapy and psychotherapy.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

"Evening Coolness"

Day eight: “Evening Coolness” / 夕涼み 
Kikuya, 5-13-2 Minami-Aoyama, ¥430

Also known as “Antique street”, Kottobashi-dori is lined with shops dedicated to impeccably-crafted small objects, and the tiny Kikuya sweet shop fits right in. Since 1938, family-owned Kikuya has been producing high-end traditional sweets, or wagashi. Most of the wagashi on display are namagashi, meaning that they are freshly made of moist ingredients such as kanten or bean paste. Namagashi include no preservatives and have an incredibly short shelf-life. Ideally they should be eaten within a day, with the result that the imagery they evoke is often precisely calibrated to the weather or season.

Of all of the beautiful namagashi on offer, I had to have this one, a tiny sensu fan filled with smooth, sweet koshian bean paste. Not only does it suggest a much-welcome languid breeze, it also brings back happy memories of the occasion on my last visit when a little old man on a train, a total stranger, bowed and made me a present of his fan, which I still carry around today. The woman behind Kikuya’s counter was every bit as kind, teaching me some new wagashi vocabulary and patiently prompting some of my stock Japanese pleasantries.

Still carrying my purchases I wandered a few blocks to the opening of my friend Shinji Nakaba’s new show. Shinji is a jeweler and a carver, and like the folks at Kikuya turns out stunning and delightful work on a minute scale. You can see his work at and more about Kikuya (in Japanese) at

Monday, July 28, 2008


Day seven: Amanattō / 甘納豆

7-11, ¥120

My mother loves Japan just as much as I do, but we’ve always disagreed on one big thing: the sweets. Like me, she’s a fan of squishy and gelatinous textures, but she’s learned the hard way that a glossy dark brown interior is less often chocolate and more often an, sweet bean jam. “Beans and sugar, “ she says with a shudder.

Well, Mom, avert your eyes. Amanattō is a kind of deconstructed an. A variety of dried beans (including the faddish black soybean) are boiled and then coated in granulated sugar. The resulting product has an appealing crystalline crunch, but the beany interior is somewhat mealy and overwhelmingly sweet, as if a molecular shoehorn had been used to pack in as much sugar as physically possible.

Again, I’ve probably slandered a whole genre by basing my judgment on a 7-11 snack. The amanatto on sale at various depachika are far more expensive, but I’ll hang around looking hungry and see if I can score some samples for comparison’s sake.

Sunday, July 27, 2008


Day six: Ramune / ラムネ

Festival stall, ¥100

Tokyo’s streets are notoriously hard to navigate. Few have names or run for more than a couple of blocks without splitting, turning, or dead-ending. For centuries, this rabbit-warren approach to city planning effectively kept would-be invaders from finding their way around, and today it has much the same effect on tourists. Addresses are given as a ward name (there are 23 in Tokyo) and a series of 3 numbers, which narrow in focus from a neighborhood, to a block, to a particular building. I spent most of today feverishly chanting chains of numbers as I tried unsuccessfully to find a flea market, a restaurant, a gallery, and two shops.

But of course the fantastic thing about being lost is that you find things you were never looking for. Around dusk I was trudging past boring chain stores (Talbots!) on a busy modern street and berating myself for having wasted the day, when out of the corner of my eye I caught the distinctive glow of paper lanterns. Leaving 2008 and the main street behind, I followed the string of lights down a narrow alley to a small shrine. As crowds gathered, and drummers began to set up, swarms of children in brightly colored cotton yukata set upon the festival stalls, throwing darts, buying goldfish, or munching fried noodles.

At one of the most popular stalls, a young man dispensed dark green bottles of ramune from a tub of ice. Introduced to Japan in the late 19th century, ramune is identical to British “fizzy lemonade” (or American “Sprite”), but its real appeal comes from its old-fashioned marble-stoppered glass bottles. Using a special tool, the vendor forces the marble down into the neck, where a kink in the bottle keeps it from falling either in or out. As you tilt the bottle to drink, the marble gives out a cheerful rattle that will now always remind of me of humid summer evenings and laughing children decked out little little paper lanterns.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

"The Shadow of Young Leaves"

Day five: “The Shadow of Young Leaves” / 若葉蔭

Toraya at Isetan, ¥420

As I write this, the temperature hangs in the mid-nineties and the humidity is hurrying to catch up. Within minutes of getting dressed, I feel like I’m wearing damp dishrags; I won’t even describe how I feel or smell at the end of hard day’s touristing.

At times like this I often think of one item from a list of tea ceremony tenets commonly attributed to the 16th century master, Sen no Rikyu: “In summer suggest coolness; in winter, warmth.” Physical sensation, in other words, is more a matter of mind than of matter. In order to promote the comfort of their guests, tea hosts apply this principle with a wide brush. Summer calls for lighter incense, dewier flowers, and gossamer fabrics printed with swaying grasses or swirling streams. Likewise summer sweets, which may be crafted to resemble glass, water, or frost, and are often served on glass dishes and sprinkled with droplets of water.

Today’s sweet is a testament to the power of just such suggestions. In this charming and season-specific vignette, a plump koi darts in and out of the shadows in a leaf-strewn pond. The “water” is made of kanten, the seaweed-based gelatin that we Americans call agar agar and mostly waste on petri dishes. Like the konnyaku discussed in a previous post, kanten has some spectacular properties, including a high melting temperature and a glass-like clarity. In this case, kanten is poured in gradual layers around fish and leaves sculpted from gyūhi, a mix of rice powder, malt syrup, and sugar that handles like firm plasticene.

Back in my social scientist days, I had a serious research interest in novelty sweets. I mean, sugar is already delicious, so why go to the (very considerable) trouble of making it look like something else? What kind of value is added? What’s the point of a bean paste fish swimming in a seaweed sea?

I don’t pretend to have an answer, but I will say this: while this was far from my favorite sweet in terms of taste and texture, it was the first that I was really sorry to have to eat on my own. Maybe there is something to the idea of shared pleasures, after all.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Kurumi Yubeshi

Day Four: Kurumi yubeshi / くるみゆべし

Takashimaya food halls, ¥120

The basements of most Tokyo department stores are filled with food—sushi, bakeries, chocolates, booze, those infamous $100 melons—laid out as far as the eye can see. And tucked away in some corner of each depachika, you’ll generally find a motley but mouthwatering assortment of meibutsu, the famous products of various regions. These stalls are popular with big city transplants who still hanker for their hometown’s specialties, as well as with cheating spouses, who can back up their story about a “business trip” up north with a souvenir box of Hokkaido’s own cookies, when in fact they spent the weekend in a love hotel across town.

Many stores group meibutsu sweets together, and in one such display I found an old favorite from Sendai, a place I’ve never actually been. I hadn’t had kurumi yubeshi in so long I actually squealed when I found them. Although “rustic” is perhaps the best that can be said of its looks, yubeshi has all your other senses covered. So what if the outer layer of rice flakes looks like chapped skin? The flesh underneath is dense, chewy, buttery, velvety, tinged with aromatic molasses and textured with crackling chunks of lightly toasted walnuts. Despite my longstanding vegetarianism, I get what I assume is a quasi-carnivorous thrill from gnawing on a good yubeshi.

Yubeshi: It’s what’s for dessert.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Temari Suama

Day three: Temari suama / 手まりすあま

7-11, ¥60

“Handball sweets” may sound unappetizing, but for once the google translator has it right. Temari are traditional cloth balls wrapped in intricate webs of overlapping colored thread, which are imitated here by the alternating wedges of white and pink (I think the ghostly radiation symbol is unintentional). This "border crossing" tendency is one of the things I find so appealing about Japanese sweets, the idea that something delightful will only be more so if reproduced in sugar (like the bubblegum tacos of my youth, only classier).

Like so many Japanese sweets, suama start out as rice, and I’m not exactly sure what chain of events transforms them into balls of sticky, stretchy, translucent dough; this is an area I will definitely be investigating further. It’s a beautiful little sweet that I find clings unpleasantly to the roof of the mouth, but maybe that’s my fault for buying one at 7-11.

According to the internet chat, suama are a nostalgic and summery treat for many Japanese, but they inevitably make me think of plump woman dusting herself down with talcum after a hot bath (although perhaps this is what they mean by “nostalgic” and “summery”). The powder is a some kind of starch (probably katakuriko, from potatoes) liberally applied to keep the suama from adhering to everything within reach like a universal magnet.

Alice and Drew took off for the States today, and I went for a wander around the neighborhood. I headed up to our local temple complex, which was quite spooky in the dusk, with strings of unlit paper lanterns. At the top of the hill, I found farms, a huge high school, and standing sentinel over it all, the towering chimney of our local incinerator. One of the things I still find very hard to accept about Japan is that they prefer to burn most garbage rather than recycle materials of which they have no natural native sources. In our neighborhood, they are at least starting to separate out PET bottles and cans, but that doesn’t seem to be common. The miniature garbage trucks come around every single day, blaring odd minor-key calliope music so that I wake up thinking, “yeah, I could go for some ice cream…’.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008


Day two:
Konnyakubatake / こんにゃくばたけ
MannanLife at various pharmacies, from ¥150/bag

I *heart* konnyakubatake.

When I first stumbled across konnyakubatake I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I liked wrapping my tongue around the weirdly angular word, I liked the plastic bags labeled with soft-focus photos of various fruits, and I liked the innocuous little plastic cups shaped like lopsided hearts. But I loved their sweet, gelatinous contents, and within a couple of weeks I was buying them in bulk and slurping through a sack a day. I had favorite flavors (pomegranate! blueberry!! grapefruit!!!) and I had mood swings when I could only get second-tier apple or grape.

Finally, I joked about my habit to one of my students. Her eyes widened in shock and she shook her head; konnyakubatake, she explained, were medicine. Or more correctly, “di-e-to fu-do”. I had never wondered why I always found them in pharmacies.

It turns out that the primary ingredient in these little babies is konnyaku, an odd-looking plant also known as “devil’s tongue”. In its edible form konnyaku has almost no flavor or calories, and is nearly solid fiber.

Konnuyaku is also a respectable vegan subsitute for gelatin (and indeed here I’ve called it “gelatinous” because I just don’t know what other word to use), but with one odd and noticeable difference: it has a much higher melting temperature. Barely breathe on gelatin and it starts to go soft. But you can carry a konnyakubatake around in your pocket all day (personal experience), and when you rip off the foil top and pinch its little bottom, the jelly will surge up as firm as the day it was made. If you think of chewing as a fight between food and teeth, gelatin gives up, whereas konnyaku, with its much higher melting point, fights back--and sometimes it even wins. “Death-by-konnuyaku” is not unheard of, especially among the very young and very old, with the result that the sale of konnyaku products is controlled in parts of the states and banned in most of Europe (I’m sorry—was that “nanny state” or “ninny state”?).

After my student’s intervention, I did cut down on my konnyakubatake consumption. And I tapered off even further once I moved back to places where the only “jelly cups” available were “creamy” or had mango centers or reeked of plastic. But I never really got over my fixation, so today I peeled myself off the bed and staggered into town to score some MannanLife--for my money the best konnyakubatake brand going. Those pictured are acerola flavor, and they weren’t around for very long.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Conbini Cakes

Day one
: Conbini Cakes

For all the talk about Japan’s historic isolation, most of its sweets have far-flung origins. Baking was one of the technologies (along with firearms) introduced by Portuguese sailors in 1543, and over the following decades it spread like, well, hotcakes. One of the hottest cakes of all was, and still is, a dense eggy brick known as kasutera, based on the Portuguese castella (much more on this later).

Although ovens are still not a standard feature of Japanese homes, baked goods have become a part of daily life. Countless European patisseries ply their wares throughout the country and the Japanese return the favor by frequently nabbing top prizes at the world baking championships with their flaky croissants and flawless millefeuille.

At the other end of the spectrum are the buns and cakes on offer at every neighborhood convenience store, or conbini. The shelves of every 7-11, Lawson’s, and Sankus (“Thanks”) strain with the Twinkie family’s Asian cousins, foamy cakes that are not so much baked as “chemically activated”.

Because conbini are ubiquitous and 24-hour, they are often the first place that travelers taste “real” Japanese food. The first thing I ever ate in Tokyo was a plump pillow of crustless wonder bread filled with a explosive pocket of peanut-flavored goop; it was like a repulsive post-nuclear ravioli. Thankfully, things went better this time around; my first meal was a spongy, semi-sweet “Milk Lemon” cake from 7-11 (not pictured—I was just too hungry). Mercifully it had no hidden goo pockets. For the second course, I had the cake in the photo, a poundcake flavored with matcha (powdered green tea) and studded with azuki beans—perfect jet-lag fuel, and a nice refresher on Japanese flavors and textures.

These fusion treats were very thoughtfully provided by Alice and Drew, the English teachers for whom I am housesitting until mid-August. I’m being supervised by their cats, Nuey and Lala. Pictures of the cats, house, neighborhood, etc, can be found here: