In Hualien, east of Taiwan and leaning close to Japan, Japanese people have migrated there since as early as the Japanese colonial rule. Due to geographical reasons, it is not as modernised as other big cities in the northwest, and thus, over time, it has become the back garden in everyone’s mind. Because of its inaccessibility, one dreams and yearns for it all the more. Nowadays, it is relatively easier to visit Hualien. We took off from Tainan by car and arrived at the town centre in six hours. The happiness of travelling comes from making connections with those native to the area, and connections only ever occur unawares.
Walking along, we chanced upon Yutuzu Wagashi during its soft opening. Yutuzu is Old Japanese, meaning Venus. Second to the moon in brightness, Venus is the earliest to appear at dusk and the latest to set at dawn. Venus has always shone, we just don’t notice it sometimes. After graduating from the National Taiwan University, Lucinda, an art enthusiast, went to Japan to learn about wagashi. Lucinda’s hands and tone of voice are so dainty. The sight of her carefully holding up a daifuku was so beautiful. Like looking at a painting at a museum, my attention was transfixed, and it made me, a first timer in formal wagashi appreciation, forget about my anxiety. When I came to my senses, I adjusted my seat slightly, and opened up a conversation about red bean and white bean paste.
“Congratulations on the opening, is everything okay during the trial run?” I was actually quite curious about the architecture of the shop, which is a one-story Japanese house. Next to it is a coffee shop that has been in business for 6 to 7 years. Looks like the old house has been well taken care of.
“All is well, just a bit tiring. Today our little helper took leave at the last minute.” From her crescent stare, I saw hospitality, timidity and youthful concern. With both hands, Lucinda held up a “tangerine daifuku” to my face. A tangerine daifuku is made of gyuhi, white bean paste and Japanese greenhouse tangerine. “Here is a cotton thread, pull upward with both hands and the daifuku is cut open, please give it a try.” Even the packet that contains the cotton thread was folded by Lucinda on the spot, the paper for which was specially chosen as well.
Lucinda shared with me, “Only after coming to Japan did I learn about bean products anew. From my own understanding, white bean paste seems more elegant than red bean paste. In wagashi, white bean paste is commonly used and made into all kinds of kashi, of which jo-namagashi is perhaps the pinnacle.” To me, jo-namagashi are beautifully designed confectioneries that are all as fine as art pieces, but within them contain such rich subtleties. “I remember during the first year of confectionery school, from cooking raw white beans until they are soft and their skins come off, resting them, dehydration, etc, down to the culmination of the white bean paste, all is done by hand. Only in the second year were large machines put into use. Making white bean paste by hand is exhausting and time-consuming, but at the end of the day, I believe that making by hand is the supreme approach. I will persist regardless of how exhausting or time-consuming it is.”
“Now that I’m back in Hualien, just the white bean paste takes seven hours to make. 1 kilogram of white bean will end up stir-fried into 1.5 kilograms for use. Essentially, making patisserie demands much effort and time, and this is especially so for traditional Japanese wagashi.” In fact, wagashi encompasses all traditional Japanese dim sums, such as dorayaki, dango, mochi… but nowadays, at the mention of “patisserie”, most people think of Western patisserie at once. For two years, Lucinda studied at a school in Tokyo that specialises in wagashi. Beginning from the weekend holidays during her schooling, she has worked at an old wagashi shop in Tokyo continuously for two years, and after living closely with wagashi for four whole years, she returned to Hualien to start a business, “I like art, and I think that wagashi and art are all tied together. I want to cherish and, through learning, delve deeper into Japanese culture and Japanese art. With this sense of mission, I want to let people in Taiwan learn more about the art of wagashi.”
“At school, although I was not the only Taiwanese student, I was the only left-hander. For a time, the teacher would have me stay behind after class to practise sorting out red beans with my right hand. At that time, I was really disheartened, and during hard times, I would wonder, what was I learning about wagashi for?” Through Lucinda’s stare, I could almost see the helplessness of a person who had had to face failure in learning alone in an unfamiliar environment. “But wagashi is a very traditional thing. Later, as I continued to learn, I found that with some cutting techniques, only by using the right hand can you carve out beautiful patterns.” We should never despair too soon, for some inexplicable hardships do open up naturally someday, “Ah! So that was why, there were those past experiences.”
“Monaka” makes use of fresh Kaohsiung Number Ten “Red Jade” red beans. “All along, I have had no interest in bean paste, to the extent that I would pick out or opt out of red bean-flavoured food. Finding it too sweet is one thing, but that sandy texture is really quite off-putting. Yet, I would never have thought that after graduating from university I would go to Japan, and study at a confectionery school, not to mention, in the wagashi department, which has the most to do with bean paste fillings. Nor would I have ever thought that today, four years later, my former impressions of red beans and white beans would all but clear away.” I have a sweet tooth and I have no resistance to red beans. Hong Kong people say that it is the “sandiness” that is really the essence of red beans. When it comes to tastes, give it a thousand or a million years and still there could be no settling for what is good or bad. I think that red beans taught me about flexibility.
“When the red beans are cooked, we still have to give them a bath. Wash them once, twice, thrice, while cold water flows through the warm red beans and into the drain. Making a batch of red beans with honey pickles takes two days. Boiled red bean paste lasts for three days.” Basically, as long as it is a business day, red beans are cooked unceasingly every day. I looked on as the cold water washed the red beans gently, and they slowly cooled down and softened. I guess the heart of man is also like that. Through the passing of time, the heart, after much scrubbing and washing, softens, and its temperature and texture become just right, not too hard and difficult to swallow, but not too soft and frail as well.
As I ate a monaka and took a sip of tea, without realising it, my anxious feeling had already faded away. Lucinda said plainly, “In the world of wagashi, fillings are like trees. Seemingly banal and bland, they are basic elements, but they can also complement. They can be plain, they can be distinctive, but it seems that they cannot be done without.” In life, anxiety, suffering, anticipation and ease are like wagashi. Surely, the fillings are even more interesting. Come autumn, let’s have some wagashi.