April 16, 2006
by Chiaki Imanaka
Yatsuhashi is a famous Kyoto sweet. It was named after Kengyo Yatsuhashi, a well-known koto player and composer of koto music. The koto is a long, 13-stringed instrument that is plucked like a harp or a guitar. In 1689, four years after Yatsuhashi died at age 72, a sweet that was shaped like a koto was named after him — “yatsuhashi” — and began to be sold on the approach to Shogoin Shrine. Soon after, the sweets began to be called “Shogoin yatsuhashi”. The main shop that made these confections was Genkaku-dou. “Gen” means “black,” and it was also used as a common name for Konkaikoumyou-ji Temple, which Kyoto people also referred to as “Kurodani-san” (“black valley”). “Kaku” means crane, and the cry of the crane is similar to the sound of a koto. This store has been in business for over 300 years. Around 1905, yatsuhashi became a popular Kyoto souvenir among Japanese visitors to Kyoto. At that time, vendors stood outside Kyoto Station and sold packages of yatsuhashi.
There are two types of yatsuhashi: baked and unbaked. Generally, most people think of yatsuhashi as baked. Unbaked yatsuhashi is called “hijiri.” The ingredients used to make baked yatsuhashi are only pounded rice with a little bit of cinnamon and sugar added for flavor. Baked yatsuhashi has been around since 1689 and is like a crisp cracker. Now it is made by machine, but until 1970 it was handmade and baked on a hot plate. During WW II, yatsuhashi couldn’t be made because of the scarcity of rice.
Hijiri, or unbaked yatsuhashi, began to be sold around 1960. To make this kind of yatsuhashi, rice flour is kneaded with hot water and steam; it is then mixed with sugar, cinnamon, and sometimes poppy seeds and finely rolled out flat. It is then cut into 8cm x 8cm squares and soybean flour is sprinkled on both of its sides. Azuki red bean jam is placed inside, and then the hijiri is folded over to form a triangle. These days three new flavors have been added to the traditional taste of zuki red bean jam: macha (powdered green tea), strawberry, and peach. You should try to eat these varieties at one serving!
Yatsuhashi will keep for three months, but unbaked yatsuhashi will keep for only a week unopened. You can buy yatsuhashi in at some stores in Kyoto, also at Kyoto Station, JR Osaka Station, Kansai International Airport, and Itami Airport.