In Japan, Sweets Take On an Artistic Role
TOKYO — Japanese confectioneries, called wagashi, are artful and sweet — as well as a delicate representation of the seasons, landscape and elements of Japanese craftsmanship.
“Sweets developed as a companion to tea, as a way to enjoy the tea,” said Maki Shigematsu, senior researcher at the Tsuji Culinary Research Co. in Osaka, which studies Japanese cuisines and sweets.
In an effort to capture the shifting seasons, makers change their wagashi lineup every two weeks. In the fall, for example, yellow hints are added to the top layers of a rice cake, to reflect the subtle progression of the autumn foliage. Shades of crimson then appear as weeks go by.
But perhaps the most striking efforts are during springtime when the country’s famous cherry trees go into full bloom in late March and early April.
The motif, often expressed through shreds of pink on top of the sweets, is hastily changed when its counterpart in nature is unexpectedly blown away. “They can suddenly disappear due to strong wind or rain,” said Yoshikazu Yoshimura, president of Kameya-Yoshinaga, a 200-year old wagashi maker in Kyoto. Makers then might create a translucent whiteish rice cake with a hint of cherry petal inside, indicating that the petals have fallen on a pool of water.
Like other forms of artisanship, wagashi sweets developed into an art form and a luxury product in Kyoto, with their origins in imported Chinese snacks going back more than a millennium. The ancient Japanese capital has many traditional events and rituals in which sweets were served and eaten, such as the tea ceremonies often held in temples.