October 3, 2016
By Shiori Iwawaki, Mina Ito, and Hinako Uematsu
Did you know that Japanese sweets are taking over the world? They are colorful and beautiful and often eaten with a cup of green tea. We would like to introduce wagashi. Most wagashi consists of a combination of some or all of the following ingredients; azuki bean paste called anko, a fiber-rich gelatin called kanten, and a special type of Japanese sugar called wasambon. Wagashi is becoming known all over the world because it is unique, beautiful, has a long history and many shops.
A Very Short History of Wagashi
The origin of wagashi dates back to the Yayoi Era. Wagashi was influenced by the skills that people learned from China after the 7th century. At that time, Buddhist culture entered Japan during the Nara Era, and people started to make mochi(steamed and pounded glutinous rice cakes) and dango (rice-flour dumplings).Also yokan and manjuwere introduced from China during the 12th to 16th centuries. However, these were used for religious purposes. Japanese sweets became more common during the late Muromachi Erawhen Japan was had trade with Portugal and Spain, these countries introduced new recipes to Japan. However, the art of making wagashi became very refined during the early Edo Era. Back then there was great competition among sweet businesses in Kyoto and Edo, as well as in other regions. Wagashi was still expensive for average people, but gradually they came to afford them. Wagashi started to appear in tea ceremonies, as afternoon snacks, and gifts. During the Meiji Era, Western cakes and desserts came to Japan. These influenced the development of wagashi. Although wagashi has been influenced by foreign cultures up through today, it has always retained the Japanese sense of beauty.
Nowadays there are many wagashi shops in Kyoto. One of them is the traditional shop called “Oimatsu.” Oimatsu was established in 1904 and there are three branches in Kyoto ―Kyoto Kitano Kamigyoku, Arashiyama and Daimaru Kyoto.In the Kitano shop, there are about 43 employees and in the Arashiyama shop there are about 10 employees. We interviewed the head of the company, the fourth generation to run this shop, Toru Ohta. He is a leader who protects Kyoto tradition and Kyoto sweets.
Through talking with him, we could find out many interesting things that we could not find on the Internet. Oimatsu has about 120 varieties of wagashi and an average of five custom orders per day. This shop has the greatest variety of wagashi in Kyoto, and Oimatsu offers wagashi that other shops don’t have. One example is honbuku iwai. This type of sweet is often given people who have recovered from illness. However it has been sold only one time within the past 20 years. Many people ask Oimatsu, “why don’t you stop making this,” but Mr. Ohta said if Oimastu stop making this kind of wagashi then it would be gone from Japan. Even though they make the some wagashi that do not sell so well, their average sales per year is five hundred and forty million yen.
In Oimatsu, they make wagashi by hand, never using machines, so they just make it when they get an order. There is a difference in purchases between Japanese and foreigners. Japanese purchase wagashi for tea-ceremony sweets, and for foreigners, they want to bring cute wagashi samples back to their own countries.
We asked what is the secret of making wagashi delicious? Then Mr. Ohta told us that his core staff study about ingredients, classics, art and go to places where the ingredients are made with their employees. So Oimatsu could continue long time and many customers love this shop.
However, Oimatsu also faces serious problems. The management of Toru Ohta’s father was very bad, so the shop was almost closed down, but Mr. Ohta succeeded in rebuilding the business. As the head of the company he has tried keeping the place where employees can work happily and remember each employee’s face.
Oimatsu has a strength that other shops don’t. Every employee in Oimatsu can make wagashi even though they are just selling a package wagashi in Kyoto Daimaru, but they can also make wagashi. It is because when customer comes to consultation about wagashi, they can write a recipe or draw a sketch. Mr. Ohta said that he doesn’t think about just sales, but just tries to protect traditional culture with creative ideas. Moreover, wagashi connect peoples so he would like to spread wagashi culture all over the world.
In this research, we could find how wagashi became popular in Japan and the feelings of a man who is concerned with it. We are very proud of such a person like Mr. Ohta who is trying to keep our Japanese culture. We hope that wagashi will continue spreading all over the world.