Wagashi – Japanese tradition and aesthetics on a plate

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Summer light filtering through green leaves. The moon reflected on a clear lake. Mount Fuji covered in cherry blossoms. Throughout history, these quintessentially Japanese images have been painted, written into poems and painstakingly made into miniature artworks that are briefly admired, then eaten.

Before Pocky, and before KitKat, Japan had wagashi. Literally “Japanese confections”, wagashi includes familiar favourites like mochi rice cakes, dango, and manjuu, many of which can be found in Japanese grocery stores in Australia.

But for the cultural explorer who dares venture beyond the usual tourist traps of Japan, the essence of wagashi awaits.

JS1413_07During the Edo period, in the ancient Japanese capital of Kyoto, wagashi developed from simple fruits and snacks into highly intricate sweets. These sweets became a key component of the Japanese tea ceremony, to be served alongside matcha green tea.

As the tea ceremony is intimately connected with seasonal themes, the host carefully chooses elements that herald the arrival of seasonal changes. The wagashi served reflects this awareness of seasonality, shaped and poetically named to evoke flowers, leaves, fruits and natural scenery.

This sense of connectedness with nature is true down to the ingredients, which tend to be plant-based and seasonal – wagashi served in spring, for example, may be sakura-flavoured due to the availability of sakura leaves, while chestnut-based wagashi are common in autumn.

Just as the tea ceremony represents the key aspects of Japanese culture, the wagashi’s shapes, colours, ingredients, scent and texture come together in an embodiment of Japanese aesthetics, acting as a bittersweet reminder of the passing of time.

Types of wagashi

The wagashi associated with the tea ceremony are often called jogashi, of which there are three types: namagashi, hannamagashi and higashi.

Namagashi, specifically the hand-shaped nerikiri, are the beautifully crafted confections that most people think of as wagashi. Made from a mixture of bean paste, sugar and rice dough, they are extremely perishable and are usually eaten on the same day.

JS141_08_01In summer months, agar-agar and kudzu are used to create namagashi that include transparent jelly parts, creating a visual appearance of coolness.

Less fragile are hannamagashi, soft sweets with lower levels of moisture that allow them to remain fresh for longer. Yokan, a well-known type of hannamagashi, are blocks of red bean paste, sugar and agar-agar which are sliced for serving.

The third type of jogashi, higashi are dried sweets which include rakugan, a mixture of rice flour and powdered sugar which are pressed into moulds to form seasonal shapes.

Different wagashi for different occasions

JS1413_08_02Besides their role in tea ceremonies, wagashi are tied to the Japanese customs of gift giving.
There are different types of wagashi associated with different celebrations and festivals. Here are just some of them:

1 January, New Year:

Hanabiramochi (Flower petal cake) – white and pink rice cakes flattened into thin circles, layered onto each other, then folded in half.
Wrapped up inside are miso-flavoured bean paste, and sticks of sweet boiled burdock.

3 March, Girls’ Day:

Sakura mochi – a sweet pink sakura-flavoured rice cake wrapped around red bean paste, and then itself wrapped with a pickled sakura leaf.
Hishi mochi – a diamond-shaped rice cake consisting of three layers of red/pink, white and green.

5 May, Children’s Day:

Kashiwa mochi – red bean paste in a white rice cake, served wrapped in an oak leaf. Some areas of Japan may fill the rice cake with miso-an white bean paste.
Chimaki – a sweet glutinous rice dumpling wrapped in bamboo leaf, then steamed.

7 July, Tanabata (Star Festival):

Ama no Gawa (Milky Way) – ingredients and designs vary according to the confectionary maker, but this is usually a jellied sweet with colours and motifs to reflect the Milky Way stretching across a night sky.

Experiencing wagashi in Japan

Kyoto, the historical and cultural home of wagashi.

Tea ceremonies

Experience wagashi as originally intended, within the serenity and context of the tea ceremony. Paired as a counterpoint to the bitter matcha, the combination is sublime.

Where?

Tea Ceremony Room Juan: walk ten minutes from Kyoto Station to reach this authentic tea house. Ceremonies happen once every hour from 1pm to 5pm, and bookings are available online at http://www.teaceremonykyoto.com

Camellia: located between Gion and Kiyomizu Temple, Camellia offers a tea ceremony demonstration in English, and visitors have the chance to whisk their own bowl of matcha. Open 7 days from 10am to 5pm, reservations can be made via email or phone. http://www.tea-kyoto.com

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Stores

For a less formal atmosphere, visit the artisanal wagashi stores. Many of these stores have long, distinguished histories and some feature cafes where you can enjoy their wagashi with tea.

Where?

Tsuruya Yoshinobu: On the second floor of this sweet shop in Kamigyo, Kyoto, visitors can observe a wagashi maker in action, demonstrating and describing the process for making seasonal namagashi. Predominantly Japanese language only.
http://www.turuya.co.jp

Toraya: founded in the early 16th century, Toraya is one of the oldest and most famous of wagashi institutions. It has tea rooms and shops in Kyoto, Tokyo, and Shizuoka.
http://www.toraya-group.co.jp

Yatsuhashi: a well-known shop for yatsuhashi. This triangular confectionary of rice dough, sugar and cinnamon is associated with Kyoto and is a popular souvenir item.
http://www.8284.co.jp

Take a wagashi class

If you’re more the hands-on type, you can get the whole immersive experience by taking a short class on making wagashi.

Where?
Kanshundo: in this 150 year old shop in Kyoto, a skilled artisan will show you how to make uiro (a steamed cake of rice flour and sugar), nerikiri, kinton and higashi. Of course, once you’re done, you can enjoy your finished sweets with matcha.

Seto Inland Sea -Shimanami Kaido- on a Bicycle

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Above:Tatara Bridge passes over numerous islands that dot the beautiful ocean

Shimanami Kaido is a scenic road weaving its way between the Shikoku and Honshu islands of Japan. In recent times it has become popular amongst Japanese and foreign visitors who attempt to cycle along its 70km route. Part of the reason for its popularity is that most people of reasonable fitness can complete this route, which is lined with beautiful trees that change color each season. When riding over the many bridges, you can become one with the wind and the sea.

Text: Azusa Mori

The Seto Inland Sea in Japan is surrounded by the three large islands of Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu. The Shimanami Kaido scenic road crosses over six islands on its way from Honshu to Shikoku, namely Mukaishima, Innoshima, Ikuchijima, Omishima, Hakatajima and Oshima.

Onomichi at the northern end of the route is in Hiroshima Prefecture, famous for its “Atomic Bomb Dome”. The southern end is in Ehime Prefecture, which is famous for “Dogo Onsen”, one of the best hot springs in Japan.

While the course is about 70 km, even beginners can enjoy it by tackling parts of the route for a few hours each day. There are 15 locations on the route where you can hire and return bicycles, starting from just 500 yen per day. Whether you prefer Road Bikes, battery assisted bicycles, mountain or tandem bikes, they have
them available for hire.

One of the highlights is the scenic view of the bridge. These spots are easy to find due to the many cyclists who park their bikes and admire the views. The beautiful blue sky offsets the lush mountains, which are in red and yellow hues depending on the season.

There are also roads that run through mountains and pass by many a country house, providing a glimpse into what village life is like. I have met many kindly folk who have encouraged me with a friendly wave, a smile, and by urging me to take care and do my best.

For beginners who wish to complete the whole route, it is best to divide the trip
into two days. On the way, take the time to try the gelato made with local ingredients or pick some mandarin oranges.

If you wish to make the most of the majestic scenery, I recommend that you go from north to south. I’m amazed by the sense of accomplishment as I ascend the hill leading to the bridge and then finally cross it, enjoying the breathtaking and magnificent views of the sea and mountains.

Then, as I descended, I felt the sea breezes all around me.

When people think about travelling in Japan, many immediately think of the major landmarks in Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, and Hiroshima. Next time, why not stretch your legs a little and try the Shimanami Kaido by bike? Everyone can enjoy it, including families and couples.

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TRAVEL TIPS

1. The Cities of Onomichi and Imabari mark the starting point of your trip. They are easily accessed by train with Japan Railways serving both cities. The tourist information centre is also nearby.

2. If you plan to cross all the bridges, remember to carry 500 yen for the tolls. For a limited time, the “Cycling Shimanami” coupon is available for 250 yen.  In addition to the tolls, it comes with the discount vouchers for local products and facilities. This coupon is sold at the bicycle terminals in Onomichi and Imabari, the Onomichi station tourist office, and selected convenience stores and hotels.
Besides only paying half price for the tolls, there are other benefits.

3. If you are going on a one day trip, leave your luggage at your accommodation, take a train or bus to the furthest point that you can return to in one day, and hire a bike from that point back to your accommodation. Alternatively, just ride as far as you can, but make sure that you can return in one day. If you are visiting Onomichi over two days, send your luggage to the accommodation place at your final destination, and just carry with you a change of clothes in a small
backpack.

4. There are inns along the Shimanami route, so it would be good to stay somewhere on the first day. If you are not sure where to book, ask the travel information centre for advice.

5. If you aren’t used to cycling long distances, you are likely to get a sore bottom at the end of the day. To prepare for this eventuality, get some special cycling pants with extra padding or get a padded saddle cover. You can get either from a bike shop.

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1. Small Buddhist statues at Jikouji temple. 2. Paths for bicycles and motorcycles. 3. The famous gelato store called “Dolce”. Mandarin and salt flavours are recommended. 4. Kousanji temple. 5. Mandarins can be gathered at farms along the sea route. 6. The romantic sunset beach. 7. Clap your hands in the vicinity of the main shaft of Tatara Ohashi and the sound echoes 8. Offerings of sake barrels at Oyamazumi Shrine.
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9. Mikan candy which was bought at a rest facility along the sea route called “roadside station”. 10. Taking a rest at Hakata-Oshima Bridge. 11. A beautiful rose garden. 12. Fresh seafood roasted over a charcoal fire can be eaten at the Yoshiumi-Ikikikan rest facility. 13. The swirling ocean tide. 14. The longest bridge within the sea route is the Kurushima channel bridge. 15. Imabari Castle in Imabari City.
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MIE

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Above: Watch the fascinating sunset of Meoto Iwa

Ise Shrine and Amaterasu Omikami

Ise Shrine in Mie Prefecture, one of the most sacred destinations in Japan, is linked with the Three Grand Shrines of Kumano via the Kumano Kodo. Ancient legends state that the Japanese Imperial family is descended from the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu Omikami, who is enshrined in the Inner Shrine or Naiku at Ise. In keeping with traditional beliefs in cycles of death and renewal, the shrine is rebuilt every twenty years, with 2013 marking the occasion when the deities are transferred from their old homes to the new ones.

The Wedded Rocks and other Marvels

The sacred Meoto Iwa or the ‘Wedded Rocks’ on the coast near Futama are said to represent the Japanese creator spirits, Izanami and Izanagi. The rocks are joined by a sacred rope or ‘shimenawa’, examples of which can be seen at many Shinto shrines around Japan.

Iga Ueno, which is midway between Osaka and Nagoya, will satisfy both lovers of military and literary history. In addition to being the birth place of the famous poet, Matsuo Basho, Iga Ueno is home to a castle which boasts the highest stone walls in Japan.

Rice Cakes and Rare Beef

A visit to Mie Prefecture is not complete without trying Akafuku mochi, a pounded rice cake with a wonderfully chewy consistency, which is beautifully complemented by sweet red bean paste.

While this delicacy is readily available throughout the prefecture, a visit to the Oharai Machi shopping precinct near the entrance to the Inner Shrine at Ise is highly recommended.

Mie prefecture is also noted for its Matsuzaka beef, which hails from cattle fattened on beer and massaged to improve the texture of the meat.

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