Wednesday, August 13, 2008


Day twenty-three: Rakugan / 落雁

higashi, rakugan are dry sweets that have been pressed into a shaped mold. Although the two terms are sometimes used interchangably, my understanding is that rakugan contain a much higher proportion of starch than higashi, which are often pure sugar. Today, rakugan also tend to be far larger than higashi, although this hasn't always been the case.

The name "rakugan" describes the sweet's original 17th century form, when the pale, powdery blocks were sprinkled with a few black sesame seeds, thought to resemble a flock of geese in flight. Later that century, confectioners began to use carved wooden molds based on those used in China and Korea and the repetoire of rakugan shapes expanded.

These molds, known as
kashigata (confectionery form) or kigata (wooden mold), are among my favorite objects. I just spent a very happy day at the International Christian University's Hachiro Yuasa Memorial Museum photographing the large number of kashigata included in the museum's folk art collection. As a woodcarver, I can get so utterly wrapped up in the finely detailed craftsmanship of such objects that I forget their larger purpose. Fortunately, on my way home from the museum I passed a sweet shop selling large, pastel-tinted, lotus-shaped rakugan. It was like looking up from examing a fossil to find a live version of the same animal watching me from the windowsill.

Or perhaps "live version" isn't quite right, for rakugan like the one above aren't really meant for the living. This is the week of the year when the Japanese honor their ancestors at a festival called
Obon; while sweets are often given as offerings at temples and home altars, sweets shaped like the lotus, a Buddhist symbol of rebirth, are especially appropriate at this time of year. When I took my rakugan lotus up to the cashier she carefully explained that it was "only for display".

Unfortunately, kashigata themselves are also, increasingly, "only for display". Old molds are often impractically large and if they are used at all, it is only for ceremonial purposes. There are a handful of carvers who can still produce the smaller molds used to make higashi, and it has long been my own "run away to the circus" dream to study with one of them, but with each passing year my chances dwindle. When I recently spotted a display of contemporary kashigata another Tokyo museum I was so excited that I held my breath as I examined the accompanying photos and short biographies of the carvers who made them.

I practically skipped downstairs to ask the napping attendant for more information about these men. He stifled a yawn and grunted an answer: "

This was an expression I remembered from watching the Beat Takeshi gorefest Battle Royale without subtitles:

But we were talking about more than one person here. Surely they couldn't all be...?

"All of them."

But what about the kashigata carving industry, which must once have thrived in this area?

"Dame. Owarimashita."

No more. Finished.

My sense of loss was absurd but very real. I certainly wasn't related to these men, but I desperately wish that I had been able to at least meet them. And I'm certainly no Buddhist, but I've set this lovely rakugan out on a plate and I'll leave it there for the week of Obon, just in case.

An antique lotus kashigata, split and mended.

A stack of lotus rakugan on a home altar.

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