I'm not sure exactly when it happened but I've come to realise that at some point during the last few years I've inadvertently acquired a fascination for Wagashi.
For the 30 odd years I've been travelling around or living in Japan she'd been lurking.... I'd always considered her pretty, for the most part, but lacking in personality.
Mildly curious I'd found myself watching her from a distance - all the while she stared at her own reflection in the glass. OK, I thought, she's quaint, nicely dressed, doesn't smell bad... She was completely inoffensive truth be known - but there was always something missing.... I wanted to like her, I really did but I just wasn't drawn to engage.
Eventually I was invited to events where introductions were made and I slowly began to see beneath her perfectly manicured surface.
The more I allowed myself to spend time with Wagashi, most commonly over a cup of freshly whisked matcha, the more beguiling she became.
I found her a little challenging at first - I'd even go as far as to say... strange? She had a tendency to be overly sweet and a little too smooth for my liking, even a little slippery on occasion.
But several encounters later I was facing a much more earthy Wagashi - mildly gritty when the mood stuck her. More substance, less style.
She became increasingly complex and interesting and less texturally challenging as time rolled on.
I started to notice subtle nuances, her mild perfume, her changing shape, the seasonal blush, dimples, angles, adornments and attitude... at times there was clarity (and alliteration...) - but more often not. And that was OK.
Sure, she could play the good-time girl - fun and colourful when she wanted to be - but she seemed more authentic when she demonstrated a more subdued and serious side. I couldn't decide which mode of Wagashi I enjoyed more. Eventually I came to appreciate her for the whole of her parts.
**WAGASHI is a generic term for traditional Japanese confectionary ( of which there are many types) and comes in seasonal forms, shapes, colours and flavours. Often it is made from beans, such as azuki, sweet vegetables such as sweet potato or powdered rice - and lots of sugar to sweeten the deal. Traditional flavourings include Matcha (powdered, high grade green tea) Kinako - a malty flavoured powder of ground, roasted soy beans, Kurosato (a nutritious and deeply flavoured black sugar), sakura ( cherry blossom) leaves and petals, yuzu (aromatic Japanese citrus), sesame and soy.
These days you'll find versions including liqueurs, essences, chocolate, nuts and curious fruits - which can be fun and an easier style to initiate with. Visually there now seems to be much competition via extravagant mouldings and trendy seasonal flavours - like these little tomato jellies below
Kyoto is particularly fond of Wagashi and there are many tea houses to sample these elegant morsels with a cup of matcha (or other tea if you prefer) and you will stumble across plenty of traditional stores selling various ranges - sometimes specialising in just one particular type. Department store basement foodhalls - like that of Daimaru and Takashimaya on Shijo Street have an amazing selection of traditional and contemporary wagashi all under the one roof (not to mention every other wonderfully exotic foodstuff in the universe!)
I'm prone to wandering between the glass cabinets of the traditional sweet department making a total nuisance of myself as I ogle the latest offerings from some of Japan's very best Wagashi artisans. That's only a half truth - the counter ladies actually seem to find my meanderings rather amusing. They give each other a little nod when they see me coming... yep, it's that strange blonde with her camera yet again... Hey, we all enjoy the dance...
Note the cooling blue, water-like wagashi of mizu yokan above... made for the summer months - it promotes the idea of cool even when its seriously hot and humid! Below the wagashi has a cooling background with festive pops of colour for the Gion matsuri (summer festival in Gion)
Mizu yokan - a lighter style (less dense) yokan for summer - with fruits, beans, green tea - in the shape of bamboo, below in a plastic bamboo dish containing a biwa fruit.
Natsu mikan - above and below (summer mikan/refreshing citrus fruit filled with jelly made from its juice) uses the fresh fruit skin as the mould.
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