Sweet Destination Japan
The great taste of Japanese cuisine is becoming common knowledge, but don’t forget desserts. Japanese chefs learned western dessert cooking in the 19th century when the country was absorbing western culture for the new social development. With Japanese people’s attention to detail and taste for elaboration and authenticity, Japan today produces great levels of desserts. Before they achieved western dessert making, traditionally sweets were used in Japanese people’s daily life for entertaining, boosting their small talk and to reenergize for a new day.
From a long history of a tea drinking lifestyle and rituals, Japanese sweets are part of the tradition not only in culinary but also in art culture. Wagashi, literally means Japanese confectionary, has the exquisite techniques of all kinds; visually, wagashi is a piece of art with color, shape and sheen, all of which are created with natural food ingredients. For flavor, the sensitive taste and perfect balance and harmony of all the ingredients are full satisfaction and perfect for a cup of superior green tea. Enjoy the texture of a piece of wagashi on your tongue when you bite, and enjoy the feeling of the sensitive elegance of wagashi when you cut. Wagashi’s aroma is designed to be very subtle: All ingredients are chosen for the subtleness of smell such as rice, soy beans, potatoes, ginger, mint, etc. Then all ingredients create a perfect balance between each smell, not exceeding the aroma of green tea that you enjoy. Lastly, Japanese never forget beauty of distinctive seasonality. Japanese lifestyle is built upon the four distinctive seasons, and beauty and flavor of each of them are reflected on pieces of wagashi by using seasonal ingredients and designing seasonal icons on such a small piece.
Every element is combined on the highest level, yet in the greatest balance to enjoy the moments of relaxation, whether from a casual teatime or a traditional tea ceremony. Wagashi was originally for sacred rituals. People made special food that took extra cooking methods to dedicate to their gods and ancestors. Once the tea drinking culture was imported from ancient China around the 10th century, desserts became more elaborate with different ingredients and prettier appearances to enhance the moments in the tea room. Since tea custom came down from the establishment, wagashi culture is more evident today where there is more influence from the powerful samurai culture that remains in the local society. Along with the tea drinking lifestyle, authentic, traditional and very sophisticated wagashi cooking techniques are well preserved to this day.
Wagashi culture is particularly rich in Ishikawa, where one of the most powerful shogunites, the Maeda family reigned in the 16th century. The Maedas were particularly into the art world, and tea was one of their largest devotions. They brought the highest level of pastry chefs and patisseries of that time from all over the country. Those top-notch wagashi experts took the most fashionable style of desserts from Kyoto, and added more luxury by using slightly more sugar that was very expensive. The extra sweetness is characteristic of Kanazawa’s wagashi. In addition, Kanazawa’s weather also is allegedly the reason for sweeter desserts: Sugar preserved deserts in high summer humidity, and supplied extra calories for harsh snowy winter. Since there are varieties of traditional wagashi pieces in Kanazawa, it would take multiple trips to taste all of them.
Just as the Maeda family of Kanazawa, Ishikawa, the Matsudaira family of Matsue in Shimane was famous for their interest in the tea ceremony, and that is how the area developed a high level of wagashi. The city of Matsue also has the highest tea drinking population – and the highest consumption of wagashi per capita. While staying in Matsue, the locals often say “why don’t you have a cup of tea before you go.” This is almost their casual greeting, depicting the close relation between people’s life and tea drinking. Matsue’s colorful wagashi pieces are always beautifully presented on the tray, and are nothing more than what they quickly pick for their own cup of tea in daily life.
Wagashi is a traditional company of fresh green tea. To enjoy the harmony of both tea and wagashi’s sweetness, people never add sugar in green tea in Japan.
——– Nori Akashi : Public Relations Manager at the New York Office of JNTO
Japan National Tourism Organization New York Office
One Rockefeller Plaza, Suite 1250, New York, NY 10020