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Understanding local culture in Japan through wagashi making

KANAZAWA, Japan ― Culinary workshop participants including foreign tourists were doing their best to make wagashi — traditional Japanese sweets — under the guidance of a wagashi confectioner at Ishikawa Prefecture’s Kanko Bussankan tourist center in Kanazawa. Even though it was a weekday, around 100 people attended the class to get a confectionery experience.

“Press the sweet bean paste inside with your fingers and wrap it up,” the confectioner instructed participants at one point.

“Make slits with a spatula,” he said at another moment, as a big screen in the hall displayed his handiwork.

The tourist center started the class in autumn 1998 to help people understand wagashi, which is closely tied to the type of chanoyu tea ceremony that developed in Kanazawa. At the beginning, the class was held for a limited time, but because of its popularity, it became permanent later.

While its reputation has got around via word of mouth and tourist information magazines, the number of participants has increased year by year. In fiscal 2015, when the Hokuriku Shinkansen began service, the number of participants jumped 50 percent from the previous year to a record 57,000 people.

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The class is held almost daily, but there are no classes in December. Because there are as many as 600 participants on a busy day, people occasionally have to wait for cancellations.

Confectioners from six wagashi stores lead the class on a rotating daily basis. As wagashi varies from season to season or from store to store in design and shape, many people take the class repeatedly to enjoy making different types each time.

Participants make three pieces of brightly colored wagashi in about 30 minutes, after learning how to wrap or shape wagashi with tools such as spatulas or wet kitchen towels. The confectioner also gives one piece of wagashi to each participant, so they end up with a total of four pieces to bring home.

“Making wagashi was difficult because it was my first try, but I enjoyed learning about the culture in Kanazawa,” said Junko Tsutsumi, 32, a company employee from Taito Ward, Tokyo. Participants seem to feel closeness to the local chanoyu culture, which is apparently warmer and less formal than the tea ceremony seen elsewhere.

The class is also a special place for confectioners who normally work at small confectionery factories. “When we make wagashi without uttering a word at a factory, we don’t know the response of customers. But, we can directly feel how many people are interested in wagashi at the class,” said Akihiko Furuta, 54, a confectioner for Uratakanyodo, a wagashi manufacturer and distributor.

Kanko Bussankan has also classes offering experience such as decorating Kaga Hachiman Okiagari dolls and making framed photos decorated with gold leaf. “We’d like to make Kanko Bussankan a facility to share the culture of Kanazawa,” said Tsutomu Matsuura, the facility’s executive director.

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