After touring all over the world—including Hong Kong, Shanghai, Bangkok, New York City, L.A., Sydney, Paris—to convey the charm of wagashi, Junichi Mitsubori landed in Vancouver and held a performance on May 31 and two wagashi workshops on the following two days at the Nikkei Centre in Burnaby.
The Georgia Straight met with Mitsubori to learn about wagashi as well as his philosophy as a wagashi master.
What are wagashi, nerikiri, and Kado?
Wagashi is a term for traditional Japanese confectionery, often served with tea. Wa means Japanese and gashi (or kashi) means sweets.
The term wagashi was invented after the Second World War to distinguish Japanese sweets, kashi, from the newly introduced Western sweets. Wagashi includes daifuku (red bean paste inside mochi), karinto (deep-fried sweet covered with brown sugar), senbei (a savory rice cracker), and many others.
Among the various types of wagashi is Mitsuboshi’s specialty, nerikiri—the most refined form of wagashi with its intricately artistic flair. Nerikiri is a sweet delicacy with subtly arranged colours and shapes, which often reflects the four seasons and nature, and is served in chado, the Japanese tea ceremony.
Wagashi has been long treated as an accompaniment of tea served during chado. To add value to wagashi as art, Mitsubori founded Kado—the Way of Wagashi—in 2016.
Resonance with what surrounds you
Japanese bean paste is the main ingredient in nerikiri. This sometimes confuses people who are more familiar with Western cuisine as they ask: how can beans be an ingredient in a sweet?
“I often get comments on Instagram and TikTok, that are something like ‘Nerikiri is beautiful. But is it tasty?’ ” Mitsubori explains in Japanese. “In such a case, I always reply, ‘Well, it depends on your definition of tasty.’ ”
According to Mitsubori, flavours are not detected solely with taste buds. “For instance, guests at tea ceremonies often feel matcha green tea is tasty. That is not only because of the quality of the matcha or the technique of making that tea. The guests believe that the tea is tasty in part because of the situation. The courteous atmosphere in the tranquil setting of what feels like a temple complements the taste.”
In other words, if a matcha tea master made tea with exactly the same ingredients but in casual clothes in an ordinary kitchen and then served the tea in a cheap plain cup, you would likely find the taste different than if you tasted it in a ceremonial tearoom.
“You will find the taste of nerikiri in exactly the same way,” Mitsubori says. “The perception of taste lies in the integration of the five senses.”
That is to say, you enjoy the experience of Kado—a performance of making and serving wagashi—with the delightful appearance of nerikiri in a quiet setting, accompanied by the gentle rustle of a kimono and the briskly whisked tea, while enjoying the fragrance of matcha in a smooth-textured tea bowl.
“It’s nonsense to discuss whether it’s tasty or not outside a tearoom especially without experiencing it,” Mitsubori says. “That’s why I’m here for people who would like to experience nerikiri in Kado. You must experience it in the here-and-now situation.”
Mitsubori is the third-generation president of wagashi confectioner Izumiya in Yokosuka, Japan. Like many other young people in Japan, he thought traditional Japanese culture was uncool. And like many other heirs whose future is set, he used to hate wagashi-making practices that his father demonstrated for him. Rebelliously looking for another way of self-expression, he aspired to be a musician. “Wagashi was too close for me to direct my attention,” Mitsubori says, looking back upon his youth.
He, however, acquired the techniques and knowledge of wagashi through his apprenticeship in his family business and at the École de Pâtisserie, a confectionery college in Tokyo. When he won first place in a wagashi championship on a TV show in 2010, Mitsubori devoted himself to wagashi making as his way of self-expression.
Wagashi is art
“I know wagashi is a confection and a type of food, but my wagashi performance is not cooking. It’s an art. It’s a form of self-expression to share feelings, emotions, and experiences,” Mitsubori explains. “Sometimes I have some people in the audience moved to tears during my performance. I would wonder what made people cry, and realized that there is a resonance between the audience and me through the nerikiri. Not only in Kado, but also in any other art forms such as music and art exhibitions, people are deeply touched when they experience a resonance with the artist, I guess.”
The beauty of ephemera
Nerikiri is such a delicate creation backed by its tradition and intricate techniques, yet it soon disappears into someone’s mouth once it’s born into this world. The Straight wonders if Mitsubori has ever felt an urge to preserve his nerikiri creations.
“I admit I have,” Mitsubori says with a laugh. “I would feel ‘I put so much into making it, please don’t break it!’ But it was my ego. Nerikiri is beautiful because it’s ephemeral.”
Mitsubori deduces that people relive and share the sense of vulnerability, anxiety and death through the ephemeral existence of nerikiri. “This is wabi-sabi [a traditional Japanese aesthetic that finds beauty in transiency]. We are all vulnerable, to some extent, having anxiety, and eventually die. Is a beautiful deathbed most important in life? No. As a result of a beautiful life, a great deathbed can naturally follow. I mean, process is essential in life.”
Mitsuboshi stresses the importance of the process. In fact, in chado, the host shows all the processes of preparing tea to the guests, while the guests are expected to quietly focus on how the host makes the tea.
“So as my performance, people will appreciate the moment of ephemera through the processes of making nerikiri,” he says.
During his performance, Mitsubori always wears a belt with an iron buckle. He hasn’t applied rustproofing on the buckle because he appreciates the process of rusting.
He also tells the Straight that he feels he might need a pair of reading glasses nowadays. “But aging doesn’t necessarily mean a decline. I want to enjoy the development as a process of my life.”
Anticipation is the best sauce
To get the audience to enjoy the processes of making nerikiri, mise-en-scène is crucial, Mitsubori emphasizes. “The host heightens the guests’ anticipation through their actions, staging, and the set. That is what I mean by saying that the audience enjoy Kado with their five senses.”
According to Mitsubori, the best setting for Kado is a Japanese temple.
“Japanese temples originally don’t have electric lights inside. The inside is typically dark with sunlight penetrating diagonally. This dimness highlights the beauty of the curves and contours of the nerikiri, creating vague boundaries between light and shadow on the surface of the nerikiri. Also, limited sight reinforces the participants’ concentration. The more the guests are focused, the more their anticipation are heightened.”
Mitsubori’s quest in process
Sad to say, like his younger self, the youth in Japan tend to downplay traditional Japanese culture. But when those once endangered traditional cultures are recognized outside Japan, they are often reimported and revive in Japan.
Mitsubori hopes that that is going to be the case with wagashi, too. “In the future, when children in Japan hear about wagashi that goes down abroad, they will find wagashi ‘cool’, and inherit the culture.”