Home Sweet Kyoto

by Sugano Yasuyo

I distinctly remember watching a documentary video as a child about a traditional Japanese confectionary (wagashi) maker in Kyoto. Just watching the dignified air of this established artisan made me straighten my posture.

There is a premium type of namagashi (“wet confectionary,” meaning 30% or more is moisture), used in chadô (tea ceremony) and as a popular gift, which is called Jônamagashi. The shapes of the sweets reflect attractive images from nature throughout the seasons. In the documentary, for example, one of the featured jônamagashi was for autumn tea ceremonies, and was in the shape of a leaf. Every morning, the confectionary maker would observe the mountains. The color of the sweets made daily would match what he saw in nature; they would change from green to yellow and eventually red. The simple beauty of the nerikiri he was kneading carefully held my rapt attention (nerikiri is a blend of white bean and gyûhi, which is a glutinous rice or flour that provides viscosity).

Kyoto’s wagashi developed and became refined concomitant with chado. The jônamagashi used in chadô is considered a specialized art. The names for the confectionaries are based on the seasons, traditional themes of natural beauty, waka (a form of traditional poetry) and haiku. Eating such art as this seems so wasteful as to elicit a sigh. The delicate aesthetic touch of the maker that goes into such a small treat is always a point of interest for me.

These special wagashi aren’t the only varieties, of course; there are the usual manjû, dango, and mochi that are a part of Kyoto’s culinary charm. And in a city where there are so many shrines and temples, we can’t forget all those special treats for religious ceremonies and festivals. Imamiya Shrine’s aburi-mochi is skewered on sticks no bigger than your pinky and roasted over charcoal before a sweet-and-sour white miso sauce is slathered on. When I was a child, I had relatives who lived near the shrine and I always looked forward to those treats when visiting.

There aren’t many ingredients that go into wagashi and they are traditionally free of fats and oils for the most part. Recently, however, new kinds of wagashi are appearing, like green-tea parfaits with ice cream or whipped cream on top. Maybe we can call these “sub-culture” wagashi for fun.






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