Archive for the ‘wagashi’ Category

Calm tension: Green tea at Cha-no-ha in Matsuya Ginza

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2009

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Why do we enjoy bitterness? As children we reject it, but as adults we seek it out. Does bitterness remind us that life is not always sweet? The pleasant bitterness of coffee perks us up. And bitter chocolate (or any chocolate, for that matter) causes the brain to release the same endorphins as it does when we fall in love.

chanoha-branches2For hundreds of years, the Japanese tea ceremony has been centered around a frothy bowl of one of the bitterest teas you can imagine—matcha. As a new student to the art of sado, I’ve discovered the calm tension, and beauty, of a carefully prepared bowl of tea. The bitter tannins and caffeine of the emerald liquid energize me, yet the lovely motions of the tea making, and the care and concern for the comfort and well being of the guest relax me.

Over the last several years, green tea shops have been opening all over Tokyo. One of the oldest, and best, Cha-no-ha, is in the basement of Matsuya Ginza Department store.

Hidden behind a linen noren, this tiny shop looks as if it’s been chiseled out of living limestone. The lighting is dim, cave-like, and a soothing gurgle of running water comes from a stone basin containing forest-sized branches of a seasonal ikebana arrangement.chanoha-wagashi1

Now is shincha season, the first flush of new leaves, and you can relax with a cup of freshly-made sencha tea, the lighter, everyday brew, prepared in a kyusu, the tiny Japanese stoneware teapot. You’ll make the tea yourself, after a short explanation by the attentive staff.

One pot of tea, which can be refilled with newly heated water, and a seasonal wagashi bean paste sweet costs 735 yen. Another more extensive set including three kinds of tea—the exquisite gyokuro, Japan’s finest green tea; a frothy bowl of matcha; and a pot sencha—plus three matching wagashi, will run you 1575 yen.

If you need a respite from the crowds of Ginza, seek out this refuge. Stoneware teapots and other utensils, as well as a fine selection of green teas, are for sale outside the shop.

Cha-no-ha B1 Matsuya Ginza Dept. Store. Tel: 03.3567.2635. Open everyday. www.matsuya.com/ginza

Exquisite wagashi at Kikuzuki in Yanaka

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

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“The world of wagashi is vast,” said Kazuo Aoyama, the third-generation owner of Kikuzuki, a sweet shop operating in Yanaka for nearly 90 years. Aoyama, 87, has made wagashi, traditional Japanese confectionary sweets, for 70 years. At Kikuzuki, run now by his two sons, every step in making his exquisite wagashi—even soaking, boiling, and mashing azuki beans to make the sweet red bean paste anko—is still done by hand.

aoyama-san“Nowadays,” said Aoyama, elegant in his steel-grey kimono, “most wagashi shops buy ready-made or processed anko from a wholesale company. There are just a few shops left that do everything the traditional way.”

Wagashi has been a Japanese delicacy for hundreds of years. Its variations are endless. Anko can be nestled in a bun, covered with glutinous rice, layered between wafers, surrounded by white bean paste, even wrapped in a cherry leaf. Wagashi are often shaped and colored to represent a flower or another seasonal symbol. But creating an entirely new wagashi, not a variation on a theme, requires the skills of a master craftsman and the sensibilities of an artist.  Aoyama created two entirely new wagashi—an astonishing accomplishment.

Recognized by Taito Ward and the city of Tokyo as a master artisan of wagashi, Aoyama garnered many awards, but he seems particularly proud of the poem written by the famous haiku poetess Teijo Nakamura about one of his original creations, the green plum ao ume wagashi.

The framed haiku, which hangs among other placards and certificates on the shop wall, roughly translates: ”It is only in Bungo you get plums as plump as this wagashi.”

This charming confection, with its delicate shades of green, is Kikuzuki’s best seller. Under the soft skin is not anko, but shiromiso-an, a white bean paste sweetened with Kyoto miso. The filling has the same pale gold color and texture as a ripe plum. When you bite into the sweet, you would swear that it has a plum taste, but this is an illusion.

Aoyama’s other original creation is his ambrosial yuzumochi. This soft, gelatinous sweet contains the peel of yuzu, the deliciously scented citron.yuzumochi-close-up

To make yuzumochi, the shop buys every December some 1500 yuzu—a year’s supply—from a grove of ancient trees in Ogose in Saitama. “The fruit is not very beautiful, but it’s the most fragrant in Japan,” explained Aoyama. “We throw away the pulp and juice and only use the peel. If the peel runs out, we stop selling yuzumochi.” He shrugged his shoulders and said with a smile, “It’s a crazy way to run a business.”

This shop is about a ten-minute walk from Nezu station, up toward Yanaka cemetery. You can sample both sweets with a bowl of freshly whisked bitter green tea in the shop in a small café section.

Kikuzuki (03-3821-4192), 6-1-3 Yanaka, Taito Ward. Closed Tuesdays.

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Here’s a list of some of my favorite wagashi shops around Tokyo.

Kotobukido (0120-480400 Free dial), Koganei imo, 2-1-4 Nihonbashi Ningyocho, Chuo Ward. Closed Sunday.

Toraya (03-3408-4121), Seasonal wagashi and yokan, 4-9-22 Akasaka, Minato Ward. Outlets in most major departments.

Shimura (03-3953-3388), Tsukumo mochi, 3-13-3 Mejiro, Toshima Ward. Closed Sunday.

Itakuraya (03-3667-4818), Ningyo yaki, Nihonbashi Ningyocho 2-4-2, Chuo Ward. Closed Sunday and holidays.

Chomeiji Sakuramochi (03-3622-3266), Edo-period Sakuramochi, 5-1-14 Mukojima, Sumida Ward. Closed Monday.

Tokutaro (03-3874-4073), Kintsuba, 3-36-2 Asakusa, Taito Ward.

Usagiya (03-3831-6195), Dorayaki, 1-10-10 Ueno, Taito Ward. Closed Wednesday.

Mangando (03-3622-3128), Imokin, 1-19-16 Azumabashi, Sumida Ward. Closed Sunday.

Habutae Dango (03-3891-2924), Habutae dango, 5-54-3 Higashi Nippori, Arakawa Ward. Closed Tuesday.

Koganei imo, golden potatoes, in Ningyocho

Friday, March 13th, 2009

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Kotobukido wagashi shop in Ningyocho has been making its famous koganei imo, golden potato confection, for over 100 years.

kotobukiya-norenPassing through the indigo noren curtain hanging over the entrance is like entering a time tunnel. Kotobukido, rebuilt after the Great Kanto Earthquake, has a narrow vestibule large enough for only six customers to stand along the wooden counter. You are greeted by the smell of cinnamon and a cup of tea served by a young woman in a white smock. The raised wooden floor, the rack of oblong candy jars, the tall wooden shelves, and the ticking wall clock gently remind of an earlier, bygone era.

“We bake from 2500 to 3000 wagashi a day,” said  fifth generation owner Hirokazu Sugiyama, walking up the steep wooden stairway to the cramped work room. Three men hand-mold the fillings, a mixture of white bean paste, egg yolk and sugar, until they resemble miniature sweet potatoes. They are given a thin flour crust and a thorough dusting of cinnamon, then skewered on thin metal rods. The skewers ensure a quick, complete baking.koganei-imo4

Breaking open the small cake, you see the lovely golden texture of a freshly-roasted sweet potato.

“Our customers are all ages. Young and old. Everyone likes these koganei imo,” said Sugiyama. “But I have no children to carry on the business,” he confided. “After five—or maybe ten years—I’ll have to close the shop.”

Kotobukido (0120.480.400 Free dial), 2-1-4 Nihonbashi Ningyocho, Chuo Ward. Closed Sundays.