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).

1 comment:

Gemma said...

What a wonderful post and photos :-)
And thank you for mentioning the Hirano Dagashi Museum - as most surviving dagashi shops seem to be in Kanto it's great to hear of one in Kansai. I shall do my best to get there when I'm in Osaka next month :-)