Stepping Beyond Tea: Japanese Wagashi Comes to America!
In 1191, Monk Myoan Eisai brought Zen Buddhism to Japan, and along with it a fine green powder he claimed could prolong youth. Thanks to the recent explosion of green tea’s popularity, many Americans now know that this mysterious green powder is called matcha: a silky smooth powder that produces a frothy, rich, and deeply flavorful cup of tea. Fewer Americans, however, know about matcha’s culinary companion, wagashi. But thanks to a local partnership between a DC tea shop and a venerated Japanese wagashi shop, many Washingtonians are getting their first taste of this traditional Japanese confection.
In Japan, the drinking of tea is likened to an aesthetic religion; generations of tea masters have dedicated their lives to discovering the precise steeping process and pairings that perfectly accentuate the flavors of tea. This is how the gem-like confections known as wagashi were born. Wagashi are small, sweet cakes that are traditionally served alongside tea.
Wagashi’s simple sweetness tempers the tartness of tea –and of life in general– for a matter of moments. Wagashi are created precisely to be fleeting moments of comfort and peace. Most traditions related to wagashi were born in Japan’s Tokugawa period during a rare couple of centuries deemed “The Great Peace.” During this period, wagashi artisans sought to preserve this ephemeral moment of national calm by infusing it lovingly into the sweets of the time. Even today, only the highest masters of the art — those able to enter into a meditative state of composure — can put the finishing touches on the finest of these confections, without exposing them to strong emotions which would result overly harsh colors.
Wagashi, like the tea ceremony itself, places an emphasis on seasonality. Every lavish detail is designed to transport you, through each of your senses, to a meticulously fabricated microcosm of time and nature. For instance, in the spring, a popular wagashi is Sakura Mochi: a sweetbean-centered pink mochi (pounded sticky rice) that is gracefully swaddled within a cherry blossom leaf. The texture of this sweet hardens quickly and therefore must be eaten promptly after it is made, providing a reminder of the passage of time as you enjoy an earthy cup of tea.
Despite the wide popularity of matcha in the West, until quite recently, this sort of freshly prepared wagashi has been difficult to find outside of Japan. Today, however, there are a number of traditional Japanese wagashi crafters beginning to set up shop alongside local tea houses in the United States. One of these partnerships is between Teaism, a popular chain of tea houses based in Washington, DC, and Matsukawaya, a venerated Wagashi shop from Nagoya.
Wagashi and Tea: A Partnership with Potential
The night before the 2017 “Sakura Matsuri” street festival, the chefs of Matsukawaya spread their tools out on the double beds of their Washington hotel room, meticulously crafting thousands of delicate treasures. They worked late into the night making sure that their Wagashi were incredibly fresh, because the next day’s festival would be the first chance that hundreds of Americans would have to try their award-winning work.
On the blustery day of the festival Mr. Yoshitaka Nishino, the President of Matsukawaya, was nervous about how the traditional confections — so steeped in Japanese culture — would be received in America. But immediately visitors began to crowd around their booth. Throughout the day, the line never seemed to shorten and when the last wagashi was sold, the surrounding crowd cheered for Matsukawaya’s inspirational team.
Mr. Nishino came to the United States to demonstrate the elements of traditional Japanese culture that are deeply important to him and his company, and the sturdiness of his company’s first step into the market, its subsequent residence at Teaism’s Penn Quarter shop, and wildly popular wagashi demonstrations (including those held at the Japan Information & Culture Center) proves that there is an ‘appetite’ for that approach.
“Of course, the growing interest in wagashi isn’t an isolated phenomon,” remarked the Embassy of Japan’s Public Affairs Counselor Mitsue Morita. “The more recent commercial successes of Japanese sushi, green tea, sake and textiles have paved the way for other Japanese companies to seriously consider how they can bring more traditional goods to the US market. When I hear the stories about how quickly wagashi has attracted a group of dedicated and knowledgeable fans here in Washington DC, I know it can work for other products as well!”
This could be great news for Americans who don’t want to travel to Japan to get their favorite products, or those who want to learn more about the cultures that surround the traditions they’re already familiar with. The busy residents of Washington DC are already getting a taste of that future when they step into the honey-colored walls of Teaism’s Penn Quarter shop to enjoy a simple cup of tea accompanied by a Matsukawaya sweetbean cake: As Mr. Nishio sees it, “when you eat sweets you can’t be angry. Your heart softens. And out of this experience, all kinds of new conversations and connections are born.”