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BOUND TO PLEASE / Shops endure for generations, making sweets that disappear

The Japan News

By Kumi Matsumaru / Japan News Staff WriterWAGASHI

(Tokyo Artrip)

Bijutsu Shuppan-sha Co.

128pp

My father often used to bring back gifts for me and my younger brother when we were small when coming home from work.

Sometimes it was chocolate, sometimes fruit. And he often brought us imoyokan, small treats made from sweet potatoes by a particular confectioner. I always loved the moment of taking the gift wrapping off the small paper box to find bright golden yellow rectangles of imoyokan forming an orderly line inside. The perfect array of shimmering little imoyokan was somehow captivating, to say nothing of its not-too-sweet natural flavor.

Funawa, the name of the company that made — and still makes — the sweets, became synonymous with imoyokan for me.

According to “Wagashi,” a guidebook to traditional Japanese confectioners in Tokyo, the fresh taste of my own good old days comes from a shop with a history of more than 100 years, where they still peel the sweet potatoes by hand.

Funawa, in the Asakusa area, is among the shops listed in “Wagashi in Downtown Tokyo,” one of four sections in “Wagashi.” The book, whose title simply means “Japanese sweets,” introduces 28 confectioners in all. The other three sections are “Historic Confectioners,” “One of a Kind Petit Wagashi” and “The New Wave of Wagashi.”

The English-Japanese bilingual book shows us how beautiful and tasty wagashi can be, both while eating it and while admiring it beforehand. It also tells how generations of artisanship have supported the confectioners’ long histories — one of which stretches back 300 years.

In the pages about Sakaguchi, founded in 1952 as a senbei rice cracker store in the Kudan area, it is impressive how bite-sized nori senbei wrapped in solid black seaweed tightly pack a rectangular tin, forming a dark, mysterious mass that resembles a work of modern art.

Fluffy dorayaki cakes with a filling of tsubuan bean paste at Seijuken in the Ningyocho area are also sure to please the eye before delighting the palate. The voluminous dorayaki comes in a white paper box bearing the Chinese calligraphic letters of the shop’s name in black ink on the lid, around which a red ribbon is looped to complete the presentation. Seijuken was founded in 1861.

Even for connoisseurs already aware of some of the wagashi shops listed in the book, the lineup in the “New Wave of Wagashi” section should be interesting.

It includes Shiroikuro in the Azabu-juban area. As the name of the shop suggests, only white (shiroi) and black (kuro) sweets are offered at the rather monochrome shop and cafe, inside what was previously a traditional home.

“Wagashi,” one of the bilingual Tokyo Artrip series books — Japanese green tea, Japanese architecture and Japanese antiques are among the topics of other volumes — also includes trivia on wagashi, a glossary of wagashi-related words and a map to help you easily find the shops introduced in the book.

According to “Wagashi,” imoyokan is best consumed within three days of production as it is free from not only artificial colors and flavoring agents but also preservatives. But it says the sweet can be enjoyed longer by freezing it to make an ice candy.

I wonder whether my father knew this alternative way to enjoy imoyokan, but we would always finish them before the expiration date.

When to Read

When craving something Japanese that would delight the eye as much as the palate, or when looking for sweet little omiyage.

Maruzen price: ¥1,500 plus tax

(as of June 22)Speech

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