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.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Kyō Ichi Rin

Day sixty-two: Kyō Ichi Rin / 京一輪
Ōsu no Sato / おうすの里, ¥294

Like most of its competitors, Kyoto pickle purveyor Ōsu no Sato is the kind of place where you can forge a small meal from the row upon row of sample trays. The shop has a particularly fine range of ume boshi (pickled plums--well, apricots actually) and I was assiduously working my way through them and starting to pucker up from all the brine, when suddenly I picked a pickle that, to my shock, wasn't salty. It turns out, Kyō Ichi Rin is a plum preserved instead in sugar and honey.

After all the sculptural sweets I've been scarfing lately, the "medical specimen" appearance of the wizened plum was momentarily off-putting, but the texture was perfect--neither tough nor mushy--and the flavor was syrupy but sharp, like concentrated plum wine.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Kurumi Mochi II

Day sixty-one: Kurumi Mochi II
¥336/small serving

Although there are many Japanese sweets that I could happily eat all day, every day, I've been trying hard not to double up. On this occasion, however, there was no way to resist a second helping of kurumi mochi, a treat I'd already tasted up north.

Located in Sakai, a barren suburb of Osaka, and accessible via a rickety tram line, Kanbukuro justly famous for its kurumi mochi, reputedly the favorite sweet of local son and tea ceremony hero, Sen no Rikyu (died 1591). It's hard to explain the odd chill I get from having even such an attenuated bonding experience with a man who always shows up on my Fantasy Dinner Party guest list; imagine being able not only to order Shakespeare's favorite sandwich, but having it prepared by descendants of the very same chef who cut off the great man's crusts. Some people find that looking at the night sky gives them a freeing sense of their own insignificance and, consequently, of their place on the continuum of human existence. What can I say? Mochi is my night sky.

Kurumi mochi is the only item on Kanbukuro's menu. Large or small servings are available to eat in, and in summer shaved ice is offered as a topping; take-out comes in plastic tubs or old-school ceramic jars. The bite-sized balls of gooey mochi are completely submerged under a generous pour of walnut paste. Up north the paste was smooth and cream-colored with flecks of dark walnut skin; Kambukuro's paste is wet but thick, and a bright, bilious, rather unappetizing green. It was also, I suspect, sweetened with a full-flavored unrefined sugar, possibly wasambon. Curious about both the sugar and the color, I asked the waitress about the ingredients, but all she would say was "walnuts". I guess you don't stay in business for more than 5 centuries by blabbing about your secret sauce.

Rikyu's favorite dessert seems to have stood the test of time far better than his neighborhood. Wandering around in an unsuccessful attempt to spot the "ruined Sen no Rikyu residence" marked on my tourist map, I had the eerie and very un-Japanese experience of being the only person on the street. By contrast, Kanbukuro was hopping, with families and groups of friends hopping to get a table before the day's supply of mochi ran out; those who chose to could keep an eye on the ghost town outside via a bank of CCTV monitors mounted disquietingly over the tea urn.

Friday, September 19, 2008


Day sixty: Tsukubai

Ryu-en, ¥168 (small size)

Tsukubai is a type of han-higashi, a "half-dry" sweet made of rakugan (wasambon sugar and rice starch) and
tsubuan (chunky sweet bean paste). It is modeled after a famous stone basin in the gardens of Ryoanji temple; the carved characters on its face read, "I learn only to be contented." The ingredients are loosely mixed and pressed into the carved mold, creating a mottled appearance that evokes the play of dappled sunlight in the leafy garden.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Kibi rakugan

Day fifty-nine: Kibi Rakugan

Nishiki, ¥200

Rakugan are pressed sweets made of sugar and starch, in this case a very fine flour of roasted millet that makes these little kibi rakugan taste toasty rather than merely dry. They came from a small shop in Tokyo's Yanaka neighborhood, one of the last areas of intact shitamachi (old downtown). The kibi rakugan were made in a wooden mold carved with images of mon, old-fashioned family crests, possibly the very mon of families once prominent in the neighborhood. Goods marked with mon are less and less in common these days; in fact the only other place I've seen so many was at the huge Yanaka cemetery, where racks of buckets for cleaning the family plots are differentiated by painted crests.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008


Day fifty-eight: Gochika / 五智果 

Torindo, ¥840/box

Yes, that's a mushroom.

From a gorgeous little shop near Ueno Park, Torindo sells three surreal selections of gochika, candied fruit and vegetables. The orange box (left) includes pear, lotus root, fig, and orange peel. The green box (right) has
celery, kumquat, carrot, shiitake, and burdock. I passed on the yellow assortment (chinese pear, eggplant, ginger, bamboo)--just too tame.


Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Hama Rikyu

Day fifty-seven: Hama Rikyu

Like neighboring Tsukiji fish market, the Hama Rikyu ornamental garden underscores Tokyo's ties to the sea. Located on Tokyo Bay at the mouth of the Sumida river, Hama Rikyu was once a villa and hunting ground for the Tokugawa family, who could arrive there by boat. The park was opened to the public in 1946 and is now a welcome patch of green in an urban area bristling with high-rises.

The garden's centerpiece is a large saltwater pond fed by the adjacent bay, in the center of which "floats" a 300-year-old teahouse, Nakajima-no-Ochaya. Connected to the shore by long wooden bridges, the teahouse is a peaceful place to relax over a cup of whipped tea and a fresh seasonal sweet, such as the molded chrysanthemum above.

Garden entry costs
¥300; tea and a sweet are ¥500, and a second cup of tea is ¥200.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Café au Lait Daifuku

Day fifty-six: Caf
é au Lait Daifuku

Since Japanese flavors (matcha, black sesame, etc) have stormed their mouth-watering way into many Western baked goods and frozen treats, it only seems fair for Western flavors to make a few forays in return. For my money, coffee is one of the most successful invaders, possibly because it has a bitterness on par with matcha and a sesame-like nuttiness.

I found this "caf
é au lait" daifuku at a neighborhood sweetshop in the little seaside town of Shimoda. Of the many fresh sweets on offer this was the only one innovative enough to merit an explanatory sketch. Like a cutaway diagram of the earth's core, it showed a core of thick whipped cream surrounded by coffee-infused white bean paste and a mantle of coffee mochi, with a coffee-bean shaped chocolate perched on the north pole. While I've enjoyed coffee daifuku in the past, this was my first experience of having a little cream thrown into the mix and I'm hooked.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Owara Tamaten

Day fifty-five: Owara Tamaten

The town of Takayama sits so high in the mountains that you can't actually see any mountains as you wander around the quiet streets. All that altitude means clean air and clean water, and by extension, sake. The town has a preserved neighborhood of low wooden buildings that are or were sake breweries; some now sell tourist tat, but a surprising number are still brewing away.

Takayama has recently supplemented its tourist appeal by becoming as universally accessible as a olde worlde town can be. Most shops and restaurants and all public facilities have been retrofitted to accommodate a variety of disabilities. Brochures highlight the local attractions that can be enjoyed by those with mobility issues, including the two smorgasbordish local markets.

At the market nearest the river a woman in a small stall dispenses owara tamaten to slavering crowds. I'd never seen these luscious little cubes before, and I guess I wasn't alone in my ignorance, because two framed signs explained the treat in Japanese and in English [sic]:

"Owara Tamaten: I pass when it beats an egg white and enter and cut the honey which came to the boil of sugar and agar to a pip after cooling it an soak it in the liquid which addes sweet sake to and egg yolk, and it is the Japanese sweet that it is ununusual which baked 6."

Hmm...I can only offer a best-guess interpretation: Somehow the sake-infused meringue-like substance is made to stiffen up enough to be cut into near-perfect cubes. As customers look on, the cubes are grilled on a large, flat griddle until all sides have a golden skin. I can't imagine that much alcohol survived the heat, but the smell alone was totally intoxicating. The warm, gooey, crusty, perfumey cube was like a toasted marshmallow from a vastly-improved parallel universe. Note that mine did not survive long enough to have its portrait taken.

Saturday, September 13, 2008


Day fifty-four: Shakkei
Fujiya Hanakaida
Below: Omaya

One the of principles of Japanese garden design, shakkei ("borrowed scenery") entails bringing the surrounding landscape into a garden by deliberately incorporating views of distant mountains, castles, or other landmarks. This practice can add depth and complexity to even the smallest garden. I particularly appreciate how changing atmospheric conditions shift the relationship between the garden proper and the borrowed scene; personally, I see this as a reminder not to be so pig-headed about the correctness of my own perceptions.

I got to thinking about borrowed scenery when I found myself photographing the day's three sweets in the internal garden of Zenkōji, Takayama's most eccentric Buddhist temple and guest house. Through their forms and ingredients, all three sweets have such a strong relationship to nature that they themselves seem to bring the garden indoors with them.

At the 90-year-old Omaya shop (below, left) I paid ¥304 for two harbingers of the autumn harvest. The plump kaki-shaped sweet was filled with white bean paste and sweet-sour bits of diced persimmon. The more abstract kuri kinton was formed from chestnuts (kuri) that had been boiled, then mashed and mixed with sugar; it was very dry and slightly crumbly, with oily little reservoirs of crushed nut, sort of a less-sweet version of the pecan divinity my grandmother used to make.

A few blocks away there's a 2-year-old sweetshop called Fujiya Hanakaida, which has a generous seating area and beautiful wood-and-glass fixtures (below, center and right). From a selection of equally craftsmanlike namagashi, I chose a tiny, totally edible model of a tsukubai (¥220), the outdoor stone basin at which guests clean their hands and mouths before entering a teahouse; they lift the water from the basin using a long-handled bamboo ladle. The "stone" is made of nerikiri (white bean paste stiffened with glutinous rice to make it more sculptable) and black sesame seeds, with a puddle of kanten jelly water and a ladle made of cinnamon nerikiri and a snippet of sweetened soba noodle.

Friday, September 12, 2008


Day fifty-three: Senpyō

The first time I ever drank matcha (whipped green tea) it was accompanied by one of these cigar-shaped little cookies. While visiting Kyoto, my mother and I had gone to the huge Daitokuji complex to see the famous dry garden at the Daisen-in subtemple. Since pondering rivers of gravel is thirsty work, we opted to take tea in Daisen-in's reception room. Next to each bowl of bright green foam the waitress placed a single senpyō. We had to talk each other out of asking for seconds.

The surface of senpyō is furred with a generous amount of powdered cinnamon, a spice that for some reason I haven't yet pinned down is strongly associated with Kyoto (a result of trips to and from the Asian mainland in the early days of Japanese Buddhism?). The core is a strip of crumbly white bean paste and the surrounding cookie is soft and fluffy on top, baked to a slightly glassy crisp on the bottom.

Happily, Daisen-in now sells small boxes of senpyō to go.

Thursday, September 11, 2008


Day fifty-two: Yatsuhashi / 八橋 

I'm not sure whether it would be better to have a dollar for every temple in Kyoto, or a dollar for every shop selling yatsuhashi, Kyoto's most famous sugary souvenir (miyagegashi). While the city's confectioners are perhaps better known for their ephemerally lovely tea ceremony sweets, these don't travel so well. So while yatsuhashi may not look like a haiku made edible, they have the advantage of being vacuum packed and virtually indestructible.

Yatsuhashi dough is made from rice flour, sugar and cinnamon. To make the baked version shown above, rectangles of the translucent dough are slow-cooked on a flat griddle; as they cook they are turned from one side to the other and pressed flat with a wooden block. When the yatsuhashi are done, the baker deftly positions each hot cookie over a trough-shaped mold and forces it down with a dowel, leaving it to cool like a little curved roof tile. The cookies can then be glazed with icing sugar and various flavorings (the ones above are matcha flavored).

Until the middle of the last century, baked yatsuhashi were the only yatsuhashi; with improvements in packaging and refrigeration technology, it became possible to sell "raw" yatsuhashi. Like big ravioli, namayatushashi (below) are squares of soft, chewy dough folded over an ever-changing assortment of fashionable fillings (tofu, black soy beans, anko, black sugar paste, plum, etc.). I'm not ashamed to admit that my favorite is chocolate fondant; this box (¥1060) came from a stall at the train station and didn't make it as far as the next city. Today you can also buy boxes of raw yatsuhashi "skins", to eat by themselves or with some filling so perversely eccentric that it hasn't yet occurred to the yatsuhashi industry.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Nara no Kikuya

Day fifty-one: Nara no Kikuya

A few years ago I found a slim and beautifully designed book on kashigata (carved wooden confectionery molds). The pictures of the molds themselves were amazing but what really took my breath away was a panoramic shot showing the interior of what I guessed to be an old wagashi shop; taken from close to the floor, the photo showed the walls and ceiling of room literally covered in kashigata of all shapes and sizes, crammed on shelves or stuffed between rafters. The caption identified the shop as Kikuya of Nara, and I immediately added it to my itinerary.

Located a short way from the tourist attractions of central Nara, Kikuya is about a 10-minute walk from Koriyama station. The crumbly wood-and-stucco building anchors a narrow and otherwise unremarkable backstreet. I'm starting to get a little blase about these rifts in the space-time continuum, but luckily I was able to see Kikuya through the fresh eyes of my visiting friend Bernard, who hadn't yet gotten over jet-lag, much less gotten jaded.

It was lovely weather so the whole side of the shop was thrown open to the street and I spotted the kashigata ceiling from a block away. While Bernard and I were still gawking and taking pictures, an older gentleman in a typical craftsman's outfit came up and we started chatting. I belatedly realized that he was the current proprietor of this 450-year-old establishment, but I couldn't have made too much of an ass of myself up to then because he invited Bernard and me to follow him next door.

Next to the crumbling shop was a 4-story cast concrete rowhouse, its modernity tempered by antique furniture and an internal garden. I felt like Alice down the rabbit hole as the proprietor led us past a gazebo and a water feature, to a perfect little teahouse built into the back corner of the bunker. He arranged us on the tatami mats and for the next hour we "conversed" about the history and artistry of wagashi; I translated everything I could catch for Bernard and he obliged me with a few air-nods when I hadn't a clue what to say. One of the shop assistants came in at intervals, bringing bowls of tea and a stacked lacquer box full of the current line of namagashi, of which we ate a couple.

Finally, with a quick look behind the scenes at the mizuya (teahouse kitchen), profuse thanks, and much bowing, Bernard and I were back out on the street. We paused for a moment between the 15th and 21st centuries as I tried to explain what a rare treat we'd just stumbled into. I had no idea what had unlocked those doors to us. Had I used some magic password without knowing it?

"Yeah, that was great, " said Bernard. "Maybe we should actually buy something?"

So we took away some souvenir sweets and two sculpted namagashi: a plump cotton-stuffed chrysanthemum and a knobby little potato of nerikiri smudged with cinnamon. We ate them in Nara park, sitting on a bench touched by the long shadows of a perfect late summer afternoon.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Taisho Era Designs

Day fifty: Taisho Era Designs

These wagashi designs come from books published in 1922, towards the end of Japan's Taisho Era (1912-1926). The bound and boxed set includes 5 volumes, one for each principal season and one for designs pertaining to special occasions. The woodblock printed images indicate that wagashi makers of the day used an enormous range of materials and techniques. The variety of aesthetic approaches illustrated by each careful grouping also hint at the range of influences impacting Japanese culture at that time.

The deep purple Chinese Bellflower is a favorite sight of late summer and early fall.

Together, plum blossoms, bamboo, and pine are known as "The Three Friends of Winter".

Taisho-era Japan was strongly influenced by Art Deco art and design. Here the spring season's iris and hydrangea look almost crystalline.

Monday, September 8, 2008


Day forty-nine: Wafers

Left: Saganotsuki
¥262 for three
Right: ?
¥1200 for twelve

On the left, d
iscs of thick rice paper are glued together with a schmear of yuzu, plum, or black miso paste--the flavors so subtle that the selection isn't as jarring as it might otherwise be. The sweets on the right are as delicate and crusty as frozen snow, with an initial crunch that melts immediately on the tongue; wafers of rice flour and sugar are frosted with more sugar and sandwiched together with yet more sugar, a gritty plum-flavored mixture with enough tartness to pull the whole thing back from the edge of insipidity. Best accompanied by a cup of hot green tea.