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.

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