Note: Though COVID-19 has stalled a lot of travel plans, we hope our stories can offer inspiration for your future adventures—and a bit of hope.
Chikara Mizukami works with an easy concentration as he rolls a piece of what looks like white Play-Doh in his palm, gently flattening it into a thick disk. He places a mound of anko⎯red adzuki-bean paste⎯in the center of the disk and smooths the dough around it to form an orb the size of a golf ball. Without breaking his rhythm, he picks up a light wooden tool and scores the soft sphere. Seconds later, he holds in his hand a tiny white peach, complete with the signature dimple. It’s marvelous. From two seemingly simple elements, he’s created a miniature work of art.
Mizukami is making wagashi, Japanese sweets composed of some combination of red bean paste and rice flour and traditionally served with green tea. The word wagashi describes a wide range of treats, from the humble mochi (made from sticky rice, and served either savory or sweet) and dorayaki (red bean paste sandwiched between disks of flat cake) to more complicated sweets such as dango (skewered mochi grilled over charcoal and served with a sweet soy glaze) and the intricate nerikiri (or seasonal) wagashi fashioned by Mizukami at Ikkoan, his tiny shop in Tokyo’s Bunkyo neighborhood.
Mizukami is a fourth-generation wagashi maker who learned the trade from his father. For the past 43 years, Mizukami has specialized in confections that honor the 72 micro-seasons recognized on the traditional Japanese calendar. (The seasons last about five days and have names such as mimizu izuru, meaning “worms surface,” for a season in mid-May, and kinsenka saku, or “daffodils bloom,” in late November.) The peach Mizukami has crafted marks the beginning of peach blossom season. Tomorrow might bring a cherry blossom or a leaf. Each confection is as fleeting as a perfect spring day: The nerikiri dough, a combination of white bean paste and rice flour, has such a high water content that the sweet must be consumed within a day or two, before it turns inedibly dry.
Mizukami’s exquisite designs and commitment to the art form have elevated him to cult status in Japan. He’s been lauded as one of the five best chefs in the country; he travels around the world to talk about and demonstrate wagashi making; and he has published a book, Ikkoan (Seigensha, 2016). Despite his fame, Mizukami retains a humble attitude and an appreciation for wagashi’s spiritual nature. As I watch, he dips a small bamboo straw wrapped in muslin into a jar of red powder made from beets, then blows into the straw. The powder floats onto the peach in an uneven pattern, but he doesn’t move to fix it. “Why not?” I ask.
“This human element is essential to evoke divine imperfection,” Mizukami says, pausing to look up at me.
Wagashi have always had a spiritual connection. The sweets were developed during the Edo period (1603–1868), coinciding with the rise in domestic sugar production and the popularization of the Buddhist tea ceremony. They were further refined during the Meiji period (1868–1912) into what we know today as wagashi. But here’s the most important thing about wagashi, and how they most differ from Western treats: While they can be quite sweet, wagashi aren’t meant to be the star of the show. They’re meant to support the tea. You enjoy the treat, then allow the bitter green tea to wash it away. Wagashi are designed to disappear.
Though wagashi continue to thrive, there has been an undeniable attrition in small family-run shops, typically because there isn’t a family member who can (or wants to) take over. Training an apprentice takes four years: In the first year, apprentices work in the shop; in the second year, they observe; the third year is spent working one-on-one with the master; and in the fourth year, they make wagashi on their own. Many aren’t up to the task.
“If the apprentice has not learned the craft after four years, a fifth year won’t make a difference,” Mizukami says.
Currently there are no contenders to fill Mizukami’s shoes, though his daughter is poised to run the business. (The art of wagashi is traditionally practiced only by men.) But he’s a young seventysomething, so a handover is not imminent.
“What happens if you don’t find the right person?” I ask.
Mizukami shrugs. “The shop will close,” he says.
And with that, he returns to rolling dough, creating his ephemeral treats.
Where to Find Wagashi in Tokyo
Wagashi are still enjoyed at tea ceremonies, but travelers can also find them at local supermarkets, at chain stores such as Toraya, or even in department store basements. (Warning: The quality varies.) But one of the best ways to experience wagashi in Tokyo is to seek out small family-run shops. Like all traditional Japanese businesses, wagashi stores are not always identifiable from the outside. Look for a hanging linen curtain called a noren, which marks the entrance. Here are four of the best (and yes, one is in a department store).
Hidden behind a noren and a wood-paneled sliding door is Ikkoan, a small shop specializing in wagashi for the tea ceremony. Here, confectioner Chikara Mizukami crafts fresh, seasonal wagashi year-round. (Go at the start of the year for hanabira mochi and in spring for sakura mochi.) While other shops also create seasonal wagashi, Ikkoan is particularly known for its high-quality ingredients and refined flavors. 5 Chome-3-15 Koishikawa. Myogadani Station on the Marunouchi Line
Do not be deterred by the unimpressive shop front with its small red noren. Gunrindo’s daifuku (mochi stuffed with salted bean paste) are arguably the most flavorful in Tokyo. Get there early: The lines can be long, and the shop closes once it has sold out. 2 Chome-1-2 Otowa. Gokokuji Station on the Yurakucho Line
Shiose Sohonke, Honen
Founded in 1349, Shiose is one of Japan’s oldest wagashi shops. The confectioner uses a 600-year-old recipe to create Shiose’s famous manju, buns filled with lightly sweetened anko (adzuki-bean paste). 7-14 Akashicho. Hatchobori Station on the JR Keiyo Line
Located inside the Isetan Shinjuku department store, Suzukake offers a wide range of wagashi suitable for gifts. The packaging—cream-colored wrapping with understated Japanese calligraphy—is among the most elegant in the city. 3-14-1 Shinjuku. Shinjuku Station, which is served by many lines.