Sunday, August 31, 2008

Zunda Mochi

Day forty-one: Zunda Mochi

I learned a new Japanese saying recently: Miyagemono ni umai mono nashi, or "Among souvenirs, there are no delicious things". I found this a little hard to get my head around; given the Japanese emphasis on giving souvenirs, packaged delicacies wallpaper every train station and airport; historically, local food souvenirs have been seen as giving the folks at home a way of participating in the journey; and surely, food gifts, no matter how undelicious, gather less dust than a snow globe?

But today gave me a little more insight. I spent most of it backtracking to Tokyo in order to take my ailing computer to the Mac store. Several hours into my train journey (I'm still stuck on local trains) I realized that I had somehow managed not to pack the fresh, delicious and expertly-made sweets that my friends at the Tokinoka Yawargi shop had set aside for me; it was like waking from a dream where you're lolling on a pile of treasure to find yourself in a single bed on IKEA sheets.

Rooting around in my bag, I managed to find a box of souvenir sweets that had been with me since Sendai. On the north end of Japan's main island, Honshu, they make something of a speciality of zunda, young, fresh soybeans that are boiled, sweetened, and ground into mealy paste. Zunda shows up in a number of incarnations, but here it is slathered over tiny balls of mochi.

There's no denying that the package was attractive, sturdy, and a welcome respite from a sweets-free day on the trains. The zunda was bright green on a scale somewhere between hi-lighter and fava, smelled of fresh chlorophyll, and tasted inoffensively sweet. But while the color shouted "freshness", the stiff, gluey texture of both the paste and the mochi whispered "extended shelf-life".

Perhaps the trick to getting delicious souvenirs is not buying foods that are packaged specifically as souvenirs?

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Tokinoka Yawaragi

Day forty:
Tokinoka Yawaragi
5-4-20 Minami Surugadai
Fujieda-shi, Shizuoka, 426-0078

Since my obsession with Japanese sweets took hold, I've trained myself to blab about it to anyone who'll listen; after all, I never know where leads will come from. My brazen behavior is only encouraged by luck like this: last summer, while teaching at the Penland School of Craft, I happened to mention my project to a fellow teacher...whose nephew had just opened his own wagashi shop.

More luck still, Kazyuki
Miura turned out to be a kind and generous wagashi maker. He invited me to spend the better part of three days at the shop, staying with his family, shadowing his activities, and asking convoluted questions in broken Japanese.

Tokinoka Yawargi is located in a modern building in Fujieda, a small city near Nagoya. Fujieda is a center of tea production and was one of the post towns on the old Tokaido road between Kyoto and Tokyo. The ground floor houses both the shop and the kitchen, easily seen through a large window. Although they do a thriving special order and takeaway business, a classy seating area invites customers to relax over cups of tea and bowls of sweet bean porridge, served up by Kazuyuki's wife Chika.

Kazu and Chika met back when he was performing in a heavy metal band and she was a fan. After hearing from wagashi-maker Niimura-san that one reason he retired early was to spend more time with his children, I was curious to see how the Miuras balance the demands of work and family. Living upstairs from the shop seems to be a huge advantage (although I'm sure it doesn't always feel that way). Granted, I visited during a school holiday, but all three kids seemed happy to help out with wrapping, stirring, or setting out serving trays--plus they sanitize their hands more often than most doctors.

Tokinoka Yawaragi offers a huge range of products, from the traditional sculpted bean paste sweets to wafers, cakes, and puddings.
During the hours I spent in the kitchen I learned a great deal about the making of particular products, but perhaps more importantly, I was able to gain some insight into how a single confectioner is able to produce such a varied lineup.

Although nearly all the shop's offerings are made in house, some components are frozen or refrigerated (dates are clearly marked and strictly followed). Over and over in my research, I have read that for a confection to be considered "wagashi" (that is, a true Japanese confection), it must be produced and consumed on the same day; therefore, a frozen product would be disqualified. But while this criterion derives in part from a general cultural emphasis on timeliness (e.g. seasonality, freshness, raw food products) it may also owe something to the historic unavailability of refrigeration and consequent risk of food-born illness. Technology is changing, and so are some attitudes, and it seems that it is increasingly up to each wagashi-maker to define "wagashi" for him or herself. At the London branch of one major wagashi maker, absolutely everything arrives flash-frozen on a plane from Japan; at that shop wagashi is defined as something made on Japanese soil, of Japanese ingredients, by Japanese hands.

(or anko) bean paste is a key ingredient of so many Japanese sweets that it behooves confectioners to whip it up large batches. Koshian is a creamy smooth paste of red azuki beans that are cooked hard and thoroughly strained; shiroan is a velvety variation using white beans. Like koshian, tsubu-an is made from azuki beans, but a good proportion of the beans remain intact during cooking, giving the paste a pebbly texture. Because I tend to prefer creamy to chunky in all things, I had always sort of dismissed tsubu-an as half-assed, rustic koshian, but several hours of watching Kazuyuki set me straight. For tsubuan, he uses special beans whose skins are delicate and without any bitterness, at five times the price of their grocery store cousins. All of the stirring and mixing must be done by hand rather than with an electric mixer, and tsubu-an requires trick timing and several extra steps, as beans must be separated and re-added at exactly the right moment.

This tsubuan makes the shop's monaka (stuffed wafers) hugely popular. They keep batches of tsubuan and fresh baked "skins" on hand and when customers drop with for a large order everything else stops for a few minutes as Kazuyuki fills the monaka and his wife or daughters fit each one into a small paper sleeve.

Although it's no excuse for my poor Japanese, many craftspeople such as Kazuyuki are (thankfully!) advocates of the practice of learning through observation and imitation. During a lull in the kitchen, Kazu pulled out some bean paste and demonstrated sculpting a blossom. First, red food coloring is mixed into a ball of stiff white bean paste to achieve a perfectly uniform pink. A tiny white blob is gently smoothed on to make a blurry bullseye, and then the whole is wrapped and sealed around a red bean paste core using a spidery, rythmic hand gesture not unlike that move where a conjurer walks a coin from finger to finger. A bamboo tool is used to score the slightly conical ball into 5 (5!) even sections, each of which is given a gentle finger-tip dent and notched at the outer edge with the same tool. The final touch is tiny white ball balanced just in the center. In the above picture, Kazu's blossom is on the right and mine is on the left.

Customers special order these boxes of large, fresh sweets to commemorate anniversaries and other auspicious events. Kazuyuki is something of a specialist in coming up with appropriate and aesthetically pleasing arrangements; he keeps portfolios full of gorgeous designs. Here he is adding the finishing touches to a flower petal with a polished crab claw, which makes exactly the right kind of line.

The morning I left, Kazuyuki was up early to fill the steamer with glutinous rice and azuki beans; the sticky, savory, pink-tinged result,o-sekihan, is one of Japan's most common celebratory foods. It is usually sprinkled with black sesame seeds and sea salt and sold in large trays or rolled into fist-sized rice balls. O-sekihan is not considered to be a confection (although savory items such as rice crackers are) but it is frequently made and sold by confectioners. The connection is purely pragamatic: o-sekihan provides another source of income from the same equipment and raw materials.
And what did the Miuras think of my visit? Read about their story (in Japanese) on the Tokinoka Yawaragi blog...

Friday, August 29, 2008

Sake Manju

Day thirty-nine: Sake Manju
Owari Seto, ¥105

From its clay-seamed soils to retaining walls built of retired kiln shelves to the faux-bronze pottery bell hanging in a local temple, the town of Owari Seto is totally ceramic-centric and the perfect home base for my friend, ceramicist Shozo Michikawa.

Following a memorable lunch at a restaurant that looked and felt like somebody's living room, Shozo and his wife treated me to sake manju for dessert. Although there are many variations, manju are typically steamed or baked stuffed buns of leavened flour dough; they may be sweet or savory, hot or cold.

In this case, the pale and puffy buns were stuffed with bean paste and delicately flavored with sake. They came from a local specialist bakery; t
he shop premises are 90 years old, but the business dates back to the late Edo period and is currently run by the 6th generation proprietor. Thanks to reed screens over the windows the interior was cool and dim, lined with old display cases of worn wood and smoked bamboo, filled with prime examples of local pottery and seemingly lit from within by panels of old gold leaf. This being Owari Seto, even the manju case became a ceramics showcase; the stack of sweets shown below rest on a local dish decorated with a classic uma no me ("horse-eye") design.

Thursday, August 28, 2008


Day thirty-eight: Konpeito

European priests who traveled to Japan in the early days could never be assured of a warm welcome, so one priest who arrived in 1569 took along some sugar-coated insurance--a glass jar of Portuguese confeito, small candy balls covered in distinctive bumps. Shogun Oda Nobunaga was so impressed with the offering that he gave the priest permission to stay and proselytize.

Today I had a crash course on konpeito (as confeito are known in Japan) from Nakata Tomoichi, a professor of Mathematics at Chukyo University in Nagoya, and the founder and president of the konpeito fan club. Nakata is the author of many scholarly articles on the peculiar mathematical properties expressed by the candy's bumpy surface, as well as a charming children's book on all things konpeito.

The first requirement for konpeito is a tiny core--a sugar granule or rice particle are used today, but in the past it could have been a sesame seed or a bit of cinnamon. These particles are tossed around in a huge rotating copper drum. A tube at the top dribbles sugar syrup onto the baby konpeito as a gas flame heats the drum from underneath. The confectioner has to keep a close eye on the drip rate, rotation speed and temperature during the two weeks it takes for the seed to grow into a spiky full-sized sweet; things can go wrong at any point, and if they do the entire batch must be thrown out.

For centuries sugar was so expensive that konpeito were eaten only by the elite or on special ocassions. Konpeito's golden age came in the latter half of the Edo period, when increased sugar production and importation brought prices down. During the Taisho period, the Imperial Family still gave konpeito as gifts, but they were often packed in shaped silver boxes. Konpeito are still served today in some particularly formal versions of the tea ceremony, and may be given to guests at weddings and other happy ocassions.

During and after World War II sugar was again so scarce that Nakata, born in 1944, can clearly remember tasting granulated sugar for the first time ("Mama, this salt is sweet!"). Sugar was reserved mainly for soldiers, who consumed it in a variety of products, including konpeito. Military researchers conducted a study in which three groups of soldiers were issued with different treats: biscuits alone, biscuits and korizatou (a candy that resembles ice), or biscuits and konpeito. The konpeito group exhibited markedly higher productivity and morale; when questioned, they said that the konpeito reminded them of their families and hometowns, and therefore of their motivation for fighting. Today the military museum connected with the infamous Yasukuni shrine has a collection of soldiers' konpeito containers.

Although konpeito-like sweets are made in many countries, there are only ten manufacturers still scattered across Japan. Members of Nakata's konpeito club seek to keep the tradition alive; the only criterion for membership is that one must eat and enjoy konpeito wherever possible. The club's diverse international membership also underscores Nakata's belief that the random but uneven formation of konpeito's sugar spikes mirror the unpredictable currents that bring people together.

If you feel like joining the hunt for quality konpeito, Nakata suggests that you look for:
an overall rounded shape (not flat or oblong)
more spikes (27 is ideal)
translucency (opaque compeito have a high cornstarch content)
a dense, crisp, "shaki" texture (rather than crumbly "gusha")
color that leans towards pastel rather than neon

That's Nakata-san below, with two origami konpeito, and here's his homepage:

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Anzu Mochi

Day thirty-seven: Anzu Mochi
Ususkawa, ¥400 for 3

At first I balked at buying a 3-pack, but any product labeled "Sweet, sour, and cute" is pretty hard to resist. The silky mochi exterior is tinted and sculpted to resemble a small apricot (anzu); inside there's a sweet/tart mixture of white bean paste and diced apricot. I should have gotten a 6-pack.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Shiratama Dango

Day thirty-six: Shiratama Dango

When my jeweler friend Shinji Nakaba’s children were small he used to make them shiratama dango, little boiled rice flour dumplings, as a special treat. Today he made them again for the first time in 15 years, but luckily this seems to be one of those “once learned, never forgotten” skills. Even better, dango-making is an easy skill to acquire; the recipe is simple and quick and the main ingredient, shiratama flour, is often available in Asian groceries outside Japan. Made from mochigome (glutinous rice), shiratama-ko looks like white fish tank gravel and comes in 200g plastic sacks.

To make shiratamadango, pour about 100g of shiratamako into a mixing bowl. Make well in the center of the flour and add about 190ml of cold water (*this seems like a little much to me, but I haven’t had a chance to test it yet). Fold the flour into the water with your hands and once it is well mixed, begin kneading. Add more water a tablespoon at a time until the dough is smooth and of earlobe-like consistency. The dough will be very opaque, almost chalky looking.

The package shows a whole range of serving suggestions, but for shiratama dango á la Nakaba, you’ll need to make a small amount of simple syrup. As the syrup is heating, stir in a good dollop of grated ginger pulp. When it has thickened slightly, remove from heat and chill in an ice bath.

Roll the dough into hot-dog-sized logs. Pinch off 1” sections and roll between your palms to make small balls. Many dango are spherical but Shiji says his cook better if he flattens them by holding the ball in the palm of one hand and poking with a finger (so bobbing around in the water they look like huge white blood cells). If you or any small sous-chefs are so inclined, you can also form the dango into small sculptures of animals, snakes, Presidential candidates, local landmarks, etc.

Gently drop each dango into a saucepan of boiling water. Boil 2-3 minutes, then lift out and transfer to a bowl of cold water (leave a small stream of cold water running into the bowl as you work). Spoon cooled dango into bowls and top with syrup, a few ice cubes, and a sprig of mint.

These versatile dango can also be filled with small amounts of sweet fillings such as sesame or chocolate, served with shaved ice or warm sweet bean soup, or eaten with savory foods like vegetable or chicken noodle soup.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Hagi no Tsuki

Day thirty-five: Hagi no Tsuki
Sanzen, ¥147

The bush clover's masses of lovely but unassuming blossoms, known as hagi, are one of the favorite symbols of autumn in Japan. The name is accordingly attached to all sort of non-floral things, such as this Hagi no tsuki, or "Hagi moon", a popular souvenir of the northern city of Sendai.

In yet another instance of the Japanese improving on a borrowed idea, the Sanzen company appears to have used Twinkie technology to create something that doesn't call to mind bomb shelter rations. The chocolate sponge is as soft as a powderpuff and the immaculately-inserted milk chocolate cream is sweet and fudgy with no hint of a test-tube aftertaste.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Aki no Ne

Day thirty-four: Aki no Ne
Baisao, Sendai-shi, ¥350

The 60-year-old Baisao sweetshop looks almost like a tear in the space-time continuum, a charming old-fashioned wooden building wedged between an unpaved parking lot and a glum modern apartment block on the north side of urban Sendai. A discreet path leads customers off the main street, past a pocket garden, and in through a discreet side door. Immediately inside, a large glass case displays an ever-changing range of "dry" and fresh sweets; any with overturned markers have sold out for the day.

Given the decidedly autumnal weather, I chose a fresh sweet called "Aki no Ne", or "The Sound of Autumn". The exterior is made of kanten, an algae-based gelatin, mixed with domyoji, cooked particles of crushed rice (think "bulgur rice"). More usually used in summer sweets, the kanten was here used to great effect, producing a sweet that is both materially and aesthetically attuned to the transition between summer and autumn. The liquid mixture is poured into glazed ceramic molds which can take almost any form, but the shape used here evokes raindrops rippling the surface of a puddle. Make that a muddy and mysterious puddle; a core of marvellously smooth white bean paste gives depth to the tinted kanten, and a single azuki bean lurks just beneath the surface.

I opted to eat my sweet on the spot in Baisao's peaceful tearoom, nursing a complimentary cup of tea (whipped matcha runs ¥370 extra) and listening to the rain drumming down outside.

Saturday, August 23, 2008


Day thirty-three: Shiogama

In the last year or so I read an article about gourmands, a quirky category of perfumes that evoke things one would like to eat--cake or bacon, say--rather than things one would usually just sniff--e.g. flowers, twigs, old ladies. Of all the perfumes dicussed, the one that really struck me is called Sel de Vetiver; the writer was in raptures over its ability to smell so powerfully like something--salt--that doesn't actually smell like anything at all by smelling like things that we associate with salt.

Shiogama pulls off much the same trick. Named for a town that was once a center of salt (shio) production, shiogama looks like an old-fashioned salt tablet and smells like sea air. The bulk of the sweet is powdered uruchi-mai, non-glutinous rice, and such is shiogama's simplicity that the raw flavor of the the rice is pleasantly perceptible. The rice powder causes a bite of shiogama to foam slightly in the mouth, while sugar and a tiny amount of actual seasalt add flavor and grit. What really brings it all together is the sprinkling of dried shiso (perilla) leaves, which gives shiogama a refreshing flavor and a tangy aroma.

Friday, August 22, 2008

"Amai, shoppai, amai..."

Day thirty-two:
Left: Kurumi mochi
Motsu-ji teahouse, ¥400
Right: Amazake
Chuson-ji teahouse, ¥450

Waking in Tōno to blue skies and a black-and-blue arm, I decided not to venture too far. I took the train a little south to Hiraizumi, another tiny town with two formidible tourist attractions.

My first stop was the Motsu-ji temple, where the relatively modern buildings take a backseat to the Jōdo-teien, the country's best- (or only, depending on your guidebook) preserved Heian-period garden. In the millineum since the complex was first constructed, all of the original buildings surrounding the lovely ornamental lake have burnt or fallen, granting the strolling visitor uninterrupted views of its sculpted islands and scrolling shoreline. The recent discovery and restoration of an original, pebble-lined "feeder" stream stretching down from the surrounding hills has allowed for the reinstatement of another Heian legacy; once a year participants in Heian dress seat themselves on the lawn and compose spontaneous haiku poems while drinking sake floated down the stream in tiny lacquer cups.

I ended my stroll by the teahouse, where a group of middle-aged ladies were rather racuously digging in to a range of unfamiliar treats. I searched the menu board for something identifiable and asked for kurumi mochi; with a name like "walnut rice paste" I was pretty sure I knew what I would be eating, but I had no idea what form these versatile ingredients would take. I was presented with a lacquer bowl containing three large balls of (remarkably tenacious!) rice paste blanketed by a paste of creamed walnuts and sugar, alongside a cup of tea and a tiny dish of utterly confounding white goo. I was just about to dump the goo into the mochi when the woman across the table stopped me; it turns out that the pickled daikon (radish) paste should be eaten alternately with the mochi, enhancing the sweet creaminess of the walnuts. My savior mimed eating out of first one dish, then the other, chanting, "Amai, shoppai, amai..." ("Sweet, salty, sweet...").

On the other side of town, I hiked up a steep and heavily wooded ridge to see the Chuson-ji complex's stunning centerpiece, the Konjiki-do. This ancient (1124), small-scale (15-20 feet wide) temple is filled with beautifully carved deities and coated inside and out with gold foil so thick you could use it to wrap chocolate bars. I was still seeing stars when I spotted a banner advertising amazake, a hot, sweet drink that I find even more comforting that cocoa. Making amazake can be as complicated as infecting cooked rice with a particular mold to create fuzzy/lumpy koji, mixing it with water and heating the mix for 12-24 hours before sweetening and serving, or as simple as adding hot water to a packet of dehydrated sake lees. The resulting beverages aren't really the same at all, but both are creamy in color and texture, sweet, lightly perfumed, and slightly chewy (heads up, bubble tea lovers!).

I'm no expert, but I'd guess that this amazake was made by the more painstaking of the two methods. Again the "main course" was accompanied by tea and a dish of pickles, which were a mixture of finely diced cucumber and the tiny buds of a bracing, aromatic herb called shiso. And again, the constrast of flavors and textures was a delight.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Yaki Mochi

Day thirty-one: Yaki Mochi

Kobiru teahouse at Tōno Furusato Mura, ¥120

Tōno is surely the nicest little town that I will never visit again--at least not until all its current residents are dead, gone, or too senile to remember me.

Tōno sits in a wide, wedge-shaped valley of fertile farmland bordered by lush green mountains. I arrived too late at night to see much of it, after a 12-hour slog on more than a dozen trains. (I'm currently traveling on a bargain rail ticket known as the "Youth 18" Kippu. For ¥11500 you get a book of 5 tickets, each good for 24 hours of unlimited travel on local trains during academic holidays. Despite the name, it's actually availble to all comers, presumably on the perverse understanding that even if you were 18 or youthful when you started your trip, you won't be by the end of it.)

When I called the Tōno youth hostel to make a booking, the warden explained that the hostel could be reached via a $60 taxi ride or a 1-hour walk; since I had a map, a tight budget, and restless legs, I opted for the walk and promised to check in by 10pm. In under five minutes I was free of the knot of neon-lit bars and restaurants surrounding the station, and within ten minutes I had passed the last quiet, curtained houses on the outskirts of the town proper. It was just me, my overloaded wheelie bag, a cartoonishly inaccurate map, and the crickets...or was it?

Stopping at each dim streetlight to consult my "map" I couldn't help thinking of what I had read about Tōno in my guidebooks. In 1909 the folklorist Yanagita Kunio discovered that ancient rituals, beliefs, and tales long since forgotten elsewhere in Modern Japan were still thriving in this insular area. Many of the folktales he recorded are violent or sinister in tone, such as that of a farmer who hangs the family horse when it becomes his son-in-law. Although in contemporary Tōno most sprites and spirits have been tamed by the tourist industry, there's something oddly disquieting about being directed to local attractions by Hello Kittified depictions of kappa, slimy, beaky, pond-dwelling creatures better known for drowning children, horses, and lone travelers.

At about 10:15 I was approaching the middle of nowhere when I spotted three points of light coming my way; they turned out to be a rescue party of young hostel employees on bikes. "We worried you might be scared, " said the girl in charge. Not "lost", not "hurt", but "scared". I sidestepped the implied question with a feeble kappa joke and thanked them profusely.

Back at the hostel it was clear that I had been labeled a nutter by the management. The manager explained the house rules to me in exhaustive detail (how to bathe, how to change shoes, how to put sheets on the bed), breaking off periodically to shake his head in disbelief that such an incompetent had made it this far on her own. I got the the same treatment the next morning when I asked to rent a bike, despite the glowering sky. I was determined to visit the Furosato Mura, a reconstructed folk village, some 8km away in the foothillls.

I had been peddling for about 10 minutes when the skies opened and I discovered that simultaneously biking and holding an umbrella is not as easy as Japanese grandmothers make it appear. I had to stop every 2 or 3 minutes to wipe my glasses and by the time I arrived at the village every scrap of my clothing from underwear up was completely saturated. In the visitor center bathroom I peeled off most of my clothes and rung them out over the squat toilet. When I emerged the gift shop attendant tied a small towel around my neck, swapped by exhausted umbrella for a new one, and waved me out into the dripping village.

Over the years, Tōno's better-to-do farmers built large L-shaped farmhouses called magariya, and many fine examples are now gathered into artificial villages such as Furosato Mura, and peopled by local pensioners employed to tell stories or demonstrate crafts. At the first house I met a man and a woman who had put aside their strawcrafting in favor of sitting next to the hearth. When they realized how wet I was they invited me to sit with them and share their lunches while we roasted my socks over the coals. While I was inside some helpful sprite took my soaked shoes from the porch and replaced them with a pair of rainboots (in the largest available men's size).

On warm and dry feet, I trooped through a few more magariya before finding my sweet of the day at Kobiru, a no-frills rural teahouse. From a number of plastic-wrapped treats next to the register, I picked the yaki mochi, a rubbery pocket of rice paste grilled just enough to raise warts and scabby patches, and filled with splinters of walnut and semi-crystallized black sugar that managed to be both gritty and squirty at the same time(the shoplady advised me to leave the plastic on while I ate). It looked like a baby cane toad but tasted like heaven--solid, comforting, and somehow warming, despite not actually being warm.

Buoyed by the yaki mochi's generous glycemic index, I continued on a circuit around the village and came to a wooden boardwalk leading to a small tree-ringed pond supposedly inhabited by a kappa. Umbrella clutched on one hand, camera in the other, I clambered up on the sodden, green-tinged boards and took exactly two steps forward in my slick plastic rainboots.
I fell so hard and fast that it came as a total surprise to find myself flat on the boardwalk with no breath in my lungs and rain falling into my gaping mouth. After a few minutes of wailing like a newborn, I came to the conclusion that while much was battered, nothing was broken. I had banged my head, shoulder and left forearm, and whacked myself in the leg with my camera. For only the second time in my life, I wished I knew how to say "concussion" in Japanese.

Back in the visitor center I set up camp in the bathroom (again) discovered that while squat toilets are fine places to pee or wring out wet clothes, they don't compare to Western loos as places to hide and have a comforting cry. My left forearm, just below the elbow, was already ballooning, so I dried my face, begged a bag of ice off the kitchen staff, and spent a good 45 minutes applying it to my arm. Since the last bus had left for the day and the bike was a rental, there was nothing for it but to pedal off into the first break in the rain.

I know, I know, I should have gone straight back to the hostel, but the eight km back was mostly downhill and by the time I got to the turnoff the sun was blazing and I was feeling rather chipper. So I proceeded to bike another 12 or so km around the valley, looping around various spots of tourist interest. I arrived back at the hostel just in time for dinner, tired and sore but ready to forget about my fall--until I took of my coat and realized that my left forearm was twice its normal size and darkening faster than the night sky. The hostel staff didn't look in the least bit surprised.

I spent the rest of the evening with my arm in the air, icing when ice was available, fretting when it wasn't, and wishing that I'd stashed an extra yaki mochi in every pocket. I could certainly have used a little comfort.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Ume Shiso Dango

Day thirty: Ume Shiso Dango
Kanameya, ¥90

Mellow, chewy dango slathered in bean paste stirred with sweet/salty/sour pickled plum and chopped leaves of shiso herb: a kick on a stick.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008


Day twenty-nine: Kawagoe

In his marvelous book Sweetness and Power, the historian Sindey Mintz shows how the demand for sugar shaped the political economies of Europe and the New World. Although Mintz doesn't discuss Japan, the little town of Kawagoe indicates that the link between power and sugar was just as strong here. Located outside Tokyo in Saitama Prefecture, Kawagoe is popularly known as "little Edo" (the previous name for Tokyo) and is hailed as a place where one can get an idea of what downtown Tokyo was like prior to the ravages of the last century.

Thanks to strong ties with the Tokugawa Shogunate and the establishment of a regional canal system Kawagoe became an early trading center. To protect the valuable wares passing through town, merchants petitioned for permission to build "fire-proof" kura storehouses like those in Tokyo, each with clay walls so thick that a kura could take 2 to 3 years to complete. Although the kura proved more vulnerable to fire than their builders had hoped, more Edo-era examples still stand in Kawagoe than in Tokyo itself. One kura that is now open as a museum was originally built to store one of the era's most valuable commodities: sugar.

The confluence of wealth, power, and trade was a boon for local confectioners. Kawagoe's most venerable confectionery house is Kameya, which was established in 1783 and served the Kawagoe fiefdom until the Meiji Restoration. Preserved company documents show that "extremely extravagant" confections were made during the boom times following the construction of the canals by the powerful Matsudaira clan. (Kameya's original premises now house the Yamazaki Art Museum, where the ¥500 entry fee includes tea and a rather nice monaka.)

Kawagoe is particularly renowned for its sweet potato-based confections; fancy versions are available at Kameya and other high-street confectioners, but for sweet potato softcream or sugar-crusted sweet potato fries, tourists head to a winding side street known as Kashiya Yokocho, or Candy Alley. Door after door opens into shops like the one below, with drawers, baskets, and jars stuffed full of sweets that would make an Edoite's mouth water.

Monday, August 18, 2008


Day twenty-eight: Shokunin

Many of the men (and, on occasion, women) who make Japanese sweets are classed as shokunin, skilled practitioners of a traditional craft. Although shokunin are repositories of just the kind of technical and cultural insights I'm after, I've been warned over and over that they won't have much to say to me. Because in Japan so many skills are passed along through families (whether real or engineered), many shokunin have a vested interest in keeping curious outsiders at arms' length; too much candor could well bankrupt the family business.

But just when I had given up hope of ever saying more that hello to a wagashi (Japanese confectionery) shokunin, my new friend Natsuki Aoshika stepped in. Thanks to Natsuki and her generous family, I was able to spend the afternoon in (translated) conversation with a retired wagashi shokunin over a table practically groaning with a wagashi smorgasbord provided by Natsuki's mother.

At his father's urging, Niimura-san moved to Tokyo following high school to begin a 20 year apprenticeship (!) in a traditional wagashi shop. As a journeyman, he spent another 23 years working under a number of masters. In many traditional trades, working in various places ("eating rice at another's table") is an important means of establishing a professional reputation, even for those craftsmen who will be taking over a family business.

Although Niimura-san became known for producing "sincere" sweets of high quality, he chose not to open his own shop. As he told me more about a wagashi maker's exhausting daily routine, I came to understand his decision. Since high-end wagashi are made, sold, and eaten on the same day, wagashi makers must start each day more or less from scratch. Components such as bean paste are available from wholesalers, their quality cannot always be relied upon, so confectioners of Niimura-san's calibre always make their own. Shops usually open around 10am, but sweet-making starts by 6am at the latest.

The schedule is hard on employees, but even harder for the shop master, and Niimura-san felt spending time with his family was more important than having his own shop. In retirement, Niimura-san is working to ensure that the wagashi continue as a living tradition. He has become active at local schools, where he teaches students to make simple sweets such as dorayaki pancakes. And of course, he occasionally takes the time to share his hard-won secrets with a curious outsider.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Keki Setto

Day twenty-seven: Keki Setto

The "cake set" or "keki setto" is a great way to sample the wares of Tokyo's multitudinous cake shops. You get a slice of the cake of your choice along with tea or coffee for a set price, usually (although not always) less than buying the same items a la carte.

Chains such as Renoir and Cozy Corner are popular places to stop for cake (or an impromptu fan dance).

This high-end cake shop in Aoyama lures passersby with display cakes topped with towering ziggurats of waxen fruit.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Nakamise-Dori Treats

For several centuries the street leading to the Asakusa Sensoji temple has been lined with shops and crammed with tourists. Nakamise-dori demands a high level of coordination; you have to be able to throw elbows with one arm and stuff your face with the other. These are just a few of the treats on offer.

Various fruits (in this case a pickled plum) swirled in gooey candy and displayed on a block of ice.

Shaved ice and summer kimono.



Senbei, hot off the grill.

Stall selling pre-packaged boxes of souvenir sweets.

Age-manju: deep-fried wheat-flour bun filled with bean paste and flavored with matcha tea powder.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Uji Kintoki

Day twenty-five: Uji Kintoki
Kyu-Iwasaki-Tei teahouse, ¥600

The Kyu-Iwasaki-Tei house near Ueno Park is an extravagant cultural mash-up built for a founder of Mitsubishi financial group during the Meiji period. Architect Josiah Condor was born in London in 1852, but lived in Japan from 1877 until his death in 1920. Somewhere he along the way he absorbed the influence of enough other cultures for Persian, Tuscan, Jacobean, and Pennsylvania Dutch elements to be readily identifiable in the house's facade and interiors.

The complex once comprised some 20 buildings on nearly 50000m2, but although the property was designated as a National Cultural Asset in 1952, both the building and the grounds have been ruthlessly pruned. Only three of the original buildings still stand: a detached "Swiss Gothic Cottage" housing the billiards room, the western-style mansion were guests were once received, and butted up against it, a large Japanese-style house where the original family actually lived.

Today a large part of the Japanese house has been given over to a tourist-friendly tearoom (in sparsely-furnished Japanese houses this kind of coversion is a mere matter of giving the tatami mats a good sweep and setting out low tables and cushions). From the limited menu I chose Uji Kintoki, an pile of shaved ice topped with green tea syrup, a dollop of sweetened red beans, and a clutch of white dango dumplings, a perfect energy-booster on a sweltering day.

I placed my order at the register and headed for one of the empty tables at the back when a woman sitting at the prime front table (maximum breeze!) waved me over and insisted that I join her and her husband. He spoke a little English and we all had a grand time muddling through a conversation about my travel plans and the merits of Japanese sweets.

After years of studying the subtleties of ethnographic interviewing, my research technique has devolved to a single question: "So, what is your number-one favorite sweet?"  This lovely even drew me a little sketch of hers, which, sadly, is only available for a few days in early spring.

Thursday, August 14, 2008


Day twenty-four: Purin

Built on the site of the prison where Tojo and other Japanese military leaders were held and executed, the Sunshine City skyscraper is something like 10 suburban shopping malls piled one on top of the other. On the 2nd and 3rd floors the usual boutiques give way to Namjatown, a theme park based on the Namja company's popular video games. A ¥3900 ticket buys you access to such intriguing attractions such as Jigoku Benjo (“Hell’s Toilet”), Jigoku Ryokan (“Haunted Inn”), and Katori Daisakusen (“Pig-riding Shooting Game”), or for only ¥300 you can head straight to the food themeparks that anchor each floor. Gyoza Stadium brings together the top dumpling shops from all over Japan, while over at Tokyo Dessert Republic, “seven shops make lots of dessert and they are waiting for you!”

Given the choice, I’d take up residence in Ice Cream City, where speciality ice creams from around the world promise “a brand-new taste explosion”; there's gelato, of course, and a genuine Turk paddling up genuine Turkish ice cream, a Cup Ice Museum that documents the historical development of ice cream packaging and flavors, and a chilly shop where a variety of cups and pops almost dare you to try them. The inventive abandon apparent in flavors such as miso, eggplant, sea salt (very nice!), or cow tongue (a cartoon cow on the label reassures suspicious consumers that there is "real tongue inside!") belies a relationship to dairy products that is relatively recent. In fact, dairy was once so repugnant to the Japanese that they characterized themselves as smelling (pleasantly) of soy sauce (shoyu nioi), while milk-swilling Europeans went about in a sour cloud of gyunyu nioi. Of the many ways people have come up with for differentiating between "us" and "them", this is surely among the most reasonable.

On my visit to Namjatown, the Japanese conversion to dairy was demonstrated even more clearly by a temporary event called "PURIN 2008". Hundreds of speciality puddings from all over the country had set up camp in long, geographically-organized coolers. Thanks to the northern island's reputation for purity and freshness, the Hokkaido cooler was decimated, down to a dozen or so surviors.

From elegant Nara came "Great Buddha Pudding", while saltier Yokohama was represented by "Bust Pudding", which came in overturned twin packs that appeared to be bursting through the blouse of a doe-eyed schoolgirl on the wrapper. Truth be told I found the whole thing overwhelming to the point of being unappetizing, but I did appreciate that its exhaustively taxonomic approach made PURIN 2008 seem more academic that gluttonous.

And should life in Ice Cream City or the Pudding Encampment become too much, you can also head to "Healing Forest" for a massage or other spa treatments; just hang a left at Hell’s Toilet.

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.