Saturday, November 3, 2012


Halloween, Easter, Valentine's Day and Christmas holidays are special times in America's candyland not just for the volume of candy sold, but also because the design of the confections aligns with the seasons. I have always loved candy corn and once found it at a shop during the spring season. I don't know why I asked the proprietor if it was fresh (they are like stone pebbles otherwise), especially since I was going to buy them anyway (and they were not).

But in Japan, one cannot eat out of season.

Question: Which of these does not belong? 
            (a) Earth (b) Metal (c) Wood
            (d) Water  (e) Air  (f) Fire
            (g) Beans (h) Rice

Answer:  They're all basic materials required in the alchemy of chanoyu, the Japanese tea ritual.  The first three are the components of the utensils; the next three are essential to transform a simple bush leaf into the fabled elixir which has been the centerpiece in an over four centuries old Japanese social, medicinal and artistic convention.

So far, so good for kettles, tea bowls, scrolls, flower arrangements and the like; what of (g) and (h)?  Combined, they create a complete protein which is the life support system of much of the world's population.  But in the hands of Japanese confectioners and chajin (tea practitioners) these simple foodstuffs become exquisite elements in the great poetry which is a chaji (tea gathering.)

Unlike the Western custom of sweetening a beverage, a guest is served wagashi, (traditional Japanese sweet) in advance of the somewhat bitter tasting green matcha, (powdered green tea leaf).  As nothing incorporated in a chaji should escape the host's meticulous consideration of theme, mood and guest's enjoyment, the form and function of those otherwise mundane adzuki beans and rice are heavily invested with meaning. 

Kyoto, chado central, is also a major center for tea sweet makers.  Just as the main tea families have their formal court of utensil makers (Raku and Sotetsu, by appointment to the Urasenke oiemoto (grand tea master) ceramists and laquerware makers, respectfully), there are sweet makers whose confections have been served at Sen family, school and organization chaji  for generations.  Tomiko Sen, wife of the current (15th generation) grand master of Urasenke recently compiled her essays (translated into English) about her husband's family's favorite sweets in a beautifully illustrated book, An Almanac of Urasenke Seasonal Tea Sweets (Kyoto, Tankosha. 1994).  True to its name, the book takes the reader on a year's odyssey of omogashi (moist)  and higashi (dry) sweets which are served following the kaiseki meal and preceding koicha (thick tea) and usucha (thin) tea presentations, respectively.  Here we have insight into the subtle sensuality and symbolism of sweetness. 

It is said that a chaji stimulates all senses ... matsukaze (sound of wind in the pines) of a boiling tea kettle; the aroma of incense; as well as touch of the ceramic tea bowl and  refreshing visual harmonies of flowers and scroll.  As for the sense of taste, tea sweets are   not sickly sweet as to overpower the palate.   In addition to beans and rice, other basic "structural" ingredients can include kudzu (a starch), agar gelatin and miso.  While the predominant source of sweetness is sugar, the taste can vary with the addition of such traditional elements as chestnuts, ginko nuts and yuzu (a citron), even a cherry leaf. 

While higashi are typically created in meticulously carved wood molds, the omogashi shapes are limited by the ingredients to being cut from a "slab" (like the supermarket available yokan jelly), rolled or pressed by hand.  Some are made to be eaten with the fingers, others with a kuromoji (pick).  Sweets can be contained in fresh green bamboo shoots or wrapped in edible and non edible leaves.   Depending upon the circumstances, traditionally omogashi are served in a 5-tiered stack of black lacquered boxes or bowls (glass, ceramic, lacquer, etc.) ; the higashi are served on trays in one of several formal configurations of laying food items on a tray. 

The handmade sweets are often prepared to order, reflecting historic as well as innovative imagery, taste and shape favored by the host to fit the occasion.  Many of the designs are Japanese classics ... whirlpools to suggest water, rabbits for New Year, various seasonal flowers, red-yellow-orange maple leaves, ears of rice, mushrooms, pine needles and cones.  Standard chaji banter between host and main guest includes inquiring as to the source and poetic name of the sweets.  Names included in this book include:

Snow Drift
Flowery Robe
Raft with Cherry Blossoms
Kashiwa mochi
Oak Leaf Mochi
Rainless Month
Hagi no Tsuyu
Bush Clover Dew
First Geese
Yamaji no Kiku
Chrysanthemum by
the Mountain Path
Blown Together
Bridge Keeper

True to the spirit of the Japanese sense of color mixing, the sweets palette range from the terribly subtle to the awfully day-glo.  I remember an event I attended at Tenryuji temple in Kyoto's Arashiyama many Octobers ago.  Following a kencha (offertory tea) presentation by the Urasenke Iemoto, we onlookers were served tea in the magnificent old, dimly lighted tea rooms by the senior teachers using some meibutsu (old, important, registered) utensils.  It was wabi-sabi heaven ... until the sweets came out: Yamamichi (Mountain Path), from the Tachibanaya confectionary, a bean/rice configuration of an, (bean paste of single consistency like smooth, soft fudge.)   The dark red-brown an center is surrounded by a thin screaming hot-pink, green and yellow rice flour skin with impressions representing mountain peaks and valleys.  (The piece was a cross-section cut from what must have looked when first made like a fluted column with a flat side.)   Ms. Sen observes, "One somehow cannot imagine tramping through such beautiful woods.  When November approaches, the amount of chestnuts in this sweet is decreased, and the colors representing the maple covered peaks, are made brighter, contrasting with the cold air all around us."

Wandering around the narrow old streets of Kyoto, it's difficult to immediately spot a tea sweet proprietor, so beyond the tried and true yet awkward method of peeking in windows, I took advantage of Diane Durston's Old Kyoto (first edition) which listed several, including century-old Shioyoshi-ken (Nakadachiuri-agaru, Kuromon-dori, Kamigyo-ku).    The Taisho-period machiya-styled wood latticed windows revealed nothing of the activities inside; the doorway was hidden by a weathered kamban and a quietly breeze-fluttered calligraphed noren concealed the doorway.  Like most traditional confectioners, the shop was more artist's studios and gallery than retail store.  No English was spoken, so I resorted to an explanation in bumpy nihongo about my chanoyu  studies at Urasenke in Kyoto and the USA, and then after being presented a bowl of matcha.  (Seems I sounded like a serious customer!)  I looked around at the old wood-appointed sales room with its wall of closed wooden drawers and to see a few displays of what looked like a tiny basket of raked autumn leaves from a temple garden ... 3000 yen for about 25 pieces of candy no larger than a thumbnail!  But they were beautiful. 

Unfortunately, Tomiko Sen's book does not have addresses of the confectioners mentioned (some may not be open to the public); however, two of Urasenke's mainstays are easy to find: Yoshinobu (with an expensive tea utensil store on the second floor and a cafe on the first), located on the same side of the street and south of the Chado Research Center (Horikawa at Teranouchi) and Miso Matsukazeya on Kitaoji on the same side and just east of Daitokuji (a fabulous roof tile and stepping stone facade!)   One need not speak perfect Japanese to be received graciously.  Going prices in Kyoto for moist sweets at the high end averaged 500 yen each in the fall of 1994. 

In many cases, the only place you can buy a particular sweet is directly from the confectioner and of course, they are only available in season.  (Some shops have outlets in department stores.)  Sweets must be fresh to be truly enjoyed, as the ingredients can also be re configured into paste and building materials. Resist the temptation to eat one on the run (a Japan faux-pas anyhow) and seek out a place to enjoy the sweet with a bowl of tea in a refined atmosphere of a temple or neighborhood tea room.  Otherwise, it's just beans and rice.

I am working on an okashiya map of Kyoto. Comments, additions are welcome.

LOCAL SIDEBAR: Los Angeles' Little Tokyo has two local omogashi makers, Mikawaya and Fugetsu-do.  At the former I once purchased a stiff gelatin-type sweet which mimicked a bright orange koi swimming in a temple pond.  My favorite proprietor is Chikaramochi in Gardena. The consistency of their mochi is so smooth, the colors are subtly wild and the taste is always fresh. In San Francisco there once was the masterful Yamada-Seika in Japan Town which in season dips strawberry in mochi.