- The Elegance and Fine Taste of Kyogashi Tea Sweets
An interview with Kagizen Yoshifusa
As you walk through Kyoto's streets or stroll in the compounds of larger shrines and temples, you will often see old shops, many with giant wooden signs on the roofs over their doors, offering a rainbow spectrum of Japanese sweets or wa gashi (‘wa’ means Japanese). These old businesses may appear out-of-date and sleepy but in Kyoto they have always had a high social status.
Kyoto has flourished as the center of Japanese sweet culture since the Heian period (794-1185). Traditional Japanese sweets produced in Kyoto have their own name: Kyogashi (Kyoto sweets). Until the Edo period (1603-1867) kyogashi sweets were something made almost exclusively for the Imperial family and the nobility. From the mid-17th century onwards, as the Japanese tea ceremony gained wide popularity, wagashi became a special treat that many could afford and appreciate. This month, KVG spoke with Kagizen Yoshifusa, one of the most prestigious Japanese sweet shops in Kyoto.
The History of Wagashi Japanese Sweets
The Japanese word for confectionery originally meant fruits and nuts, as it was customary in ancient times to use such things as offerings at shrines and temples. In the Nara period (710-784) and the early part of the Heian period (794-1185), cultural exchanges with China resulted in the introduction of Tang dynasty confections.
During the Heian period such confections became an important part of the world of the Imperial family and the nobility, used in ceremonies and as luxurious delicacies symbolic of seasonal change. The rise of samurai culture, particularly the tea ceremony from the mid-16th century onwards, also greatly influenced the flavors and appearances of these sweets. The gorgeous world of Japanese imperial court culture combined with Japanese tea ceremony elegance produced a kind of sweet that reflected the essence of the seasons in different shapes and colors. Despite the strong influence of Western sweets, Japanese sweets continue to be very popular and function as an old tradition that uniquely preserves the sophisticated image and quality for which Kyoto is legendary.
On another level the history of wagashi sweets are inseparable from the history of white sugar, which first appeared in Japan in 1603 as a valued import from the West. White sugar was a revolutionary product and demand for it was so high that by the 18th century Japan was domestically refining sugar in large quantities.
From the beginning, trade in products using white sugar became the official monopoly of sweet shops designated with the special term jogashi ('jo' means upper class). The status of jogashi sweet shops was so high that they had total creative control over their products, as well as the right to never have to enter a house through the back door when receiving or delivering an order. At the height of the Edo period, there were over 240 jogashi shops in Kyoto. Today, only 40, with a history of more than 100 years, remain. However, it is shops like these that carry on the sweet traditions of the past and quality wagashi sweets are something that most Japanese people continue to appreciate and value.
Sweet Bean Paste & Kyo gashi
Wagashi is a general term that refers to any kind of Japanese sweet. Generally, each city, town or village in Japan has their own original sweet culture. There are three main kinds of wagashi sweets: namagashi (raw sweets), han-nama-gashi (semi-raw sweets) and higashi (dried sweets). Hi gashi are generally made from kneaded rice flour and fine quality sugar, and dried in special wooden molds. Higashi are usually very small or thin, and white or faint pink. Han-nama-gashi are often colorful jellies sweets (made from Japanese agar and very sweet). Others, called ama-natto (sweet natto beans), consist of boiled beans coated with sugar.
Namagashi are the most delicate and difficult to make of the three kinds of Japanese sweets. Kyogashi represent the highest form of namagashi. And often jogashi is used to refer to kyogashi. The quality of jogashi is often determined by the quality of the an or sweet red bean paste that fills them. There are two types of an: koshi-an (strained and skinless) and tsubu-an (including the bean skin). Koshi-an is what makes jogashi so special and so full of flavor. To make koshi-an, top quality azuki red beans are first soaked in water overnight. Then they are carefully cooked (the water is constantly changed to reduce bitterness). Finally, the soft beans are mashed, strained with a sieve and then strained again through a fine cloth. The resulting soft bean paste is then sweetened with white sugar and used to make the finest quality jogashi.
Kagizen Yoshifusa Traditional Kyoto Sweets
Wonders of design, taste and perfection
Established in 18th century, Kagizen Yoshifusa, famous for its kuzukiri arrowroot noodles served with sweet sauce, is an important member of the Kasho-kai, an association of 46 shops that are among Japan's oldest traditional Japanese sweet shops. Kagizen Yoshifusa has been serving fine kyogashi for over 300 years.
Kagizen's way of making sweets has hardly changed since the foundation. Tradition is honored and fads are avoided. Indeed, the world of Japanese sweets is quite conservative when compared to the colorful, changing world of western sweets. Like so many Japanese art forms, jogashi creativity is a matter of simplification and dedication and perfection.
Kagizen has two shops in Kyoto and they don't sell their creations anywhere else. Each of their sweets is handmade and this limits production in a good way. Every day, about ten kinds of jogashi are displayed in the shop's glass cases like jewelry. Every two weeks or so ten new seasonal variations appear. Design motifs generally are drawn from seasonal flowers and plants, auspicious animals, and so on. According to Kagizen's top creator, 'About 20 years of experience is necessary for a sweet producer to master all the processes required to make the finest sweets.'
To make a new jogashi design takes a lot of time and effort. First the sweet is repeatedly sketched on paper to harmonize design, color and shape. Then the design is simplified so that only the essential colors and shape remains. A great wagashi design must be simple and elegant. It must be traditional but original. Wagashi creators must have a wide knowledge and understanding of Japanese culture, especially poetry and the tea ceremony. Kyogashi are special in comparison to other Japanese sweets because they are abstract. They appeal to our sensitivity and imagination.
When you enter Kagizen's main shop, you will see a wide range of delicately carved wooden wagashi molds inside above the doors. They are all made of cherry wood because it is hard and rarely warps. Using wooden molds started in Kyoto in the Edo period. Today only the finest producers continue to use wooden molds. Some of Kagizen's molds are more than 100 years old. In a way, they represent the history of Kagizen. Experience a sweet world of elegance, simplicity and seasonal celebration: select the sweets that attract you most at Kagizen.
Kagizen has an excellent café space in its main shop and the Kodaiji shop.