Delve into the past and present of Japanese traditional confectionery making and discover the edible works of art it creates.
So what is wagashi? Well, the small, colourful sweets you get with your bowl of matcha (green tea) at a tea ceremony are one example, but in fact, wagashi can refer to any kind of traditional Japanese sweets, from mochi (cakes made of rice flour) to taiyaki (a filled, fish-shaped sweet pancake).
Tea ceremonies traditionally feature namagashi and they contrast nicely with the bitterness of the matcha powder used to make green tea. The Edo period (1603 to 1868) saw wagashi production really take off. In Kyoto, the art of the tea ceremony was honed and codified to the point where it became a highly-refined ritual, and skilled confectionery artisans did the same for the small, sweet snacks accompanying the matcha, transforming them into the beautifully-sculpted, brightly-coloured creations we can still see today. The designs of the traditional jō namagashi used in tea ceremonies are usually natural, featuring seasonal leaves and flowers, such as sakura (cherry blossom) and momiji (maple leaf). They are soft sweets made from sugar and rice flour with a dash of food colouring, stuffed with red or white anko (sweet bean paste), then sculpted into elegant, eye-catching shapes. The craft of wagashi-making involves skill, concentration and a keen awareness for form. It takes many years to reach a professional standard. Shinya Hayashi, from Tarumi in Hyōgo, has been making wagashi for 25 years and last year became the fourth generation to run the family wagashi shop, Kineya.
He also gives wagashi workshops in the local area. Life in Kansai visited Shinya’s Tarumi shop to hear more about his passion for wagashi. What inspires your wagashi designs? Which are your favourites? “My inspiration usually comes from flowers and weather, or other natural sources. I also want to make sure we appeal to the younger generation, so I think about what would be popular with them. My most interesting designs are probably flowers such as hydrangeas, with a small touch such as a snail on the leaf. It’s hard to think of a favourite though, as I usually have a new favourite each season!”
Which is the most popular kind of wagashi? “The most popular kind also varies according to the season. In summer people go for more refreshing snacks, such as mizuyokan, a chilled jelly, but in autumn chestnut sweets are popular. In spring people like sakura designs, while in winter sweet potato-flavoured wagashi are preferred.”
What role do you think the tradition of making and eating wagashi plays in modern Japan? “Wagashi is mainly eaten at important events in people’s lives, such as birthday parties, funerals, and children’s festivals, so it’s a kind of tool for connecting families and friends. These days, many such tools and traditions are being erased. I hope people continue to honour aspects of Japanese culture, like wagashi, while spending time with their loved ones.”
Kineya is a 3-minute walk from Tarumi Station. Address: 4-7 Kandachō, Tarumi-ku, Kōbeshi, Hyōgo 6550027. Open: Mon– Sat, 9am –7pm.
By Life in Kansai. Images: Kineya Souhonten.