On a small street in the Shichiku district of Kitayama, the owner of KIOTO Sha, a children’s clothing store, led us to the right entrance. We could not help but think that it probably was not the first time that a customer knocked on the wrong door while looking for “Okashimaru”. Answering the door, Ms Sayoko Sugiyama, a wakashi, or Japanese confectionery writer, thanked the owner, seemingly habitually. This little episode is rich in the human touch and plain living style of Kyoto.
The place we visited serves not only as Ms Sugiyama’s workshop. It is also her home, which was built in the style of traditional town houses in Kyoto. The long, narrow corridor behind the front door led our eyes to the kitchen table, where she normally prepares her confectionery. Such a typical kitchen of town houses boasts ample vertical space, with sunlight slanting down gently from the ceiling, shining exactly on the surface of the kitchen table. Thanks to the light and shadow, the space has seemingly become her stage, where she prepares her poetic Japanese confectionery blending tradition and novelty. There we feasted our eyes on her demonstration while listening to her story.
Having grown up and studied in Kyoto, Ms Sugiyama has inherited the cultural air of this historical capital, with her growth closely accompanied by some traditional crafts. Even though she had never made a deliberate effort to learn Japanese confectionery, she was already familiar with the aesthetic sense behind and had even developed deep feelings towards the little worlds represented by each name in Japanese confectionery. Thus, after finishing her linguistics studies at university, she ventured into the boundless world of Japanese confectionery, self-teaching herself outside work. Without serving any apprenticeship, she has acquired her knowledge from her own observation and by asking questions. Drawing inspiration from traditions, she respects traditional techniques while at the same time daring to break new ground through incorporating her perception about nature into her creations. Before establishing Okashimaru, Ms Sugiyama co-founded a creative confectionery store called “Nikka” (日菓) with her friend, Minako Uchida. Most of the creations at the time were based on traditions, designed with reference to objects found in daily life. However, when it comes to color and taste, they failed to break away from the frame of traditions. After becoming independent, Ms Sugiyama has been paying an ever closer attention to objects in nature and hopes to recreate the beauty of nature in both appearance and taste. “I often ponder over the uncertainty between existence and disappearance. The ‘nothingness’ following the consumption of confectionery appears to leave behind an even stronger taste in our mind.” This zen-style utterance corresponds to her long-held belief in the creation of Wakashi.
Inside the long, narrow kitchen, Ms Sugiyama carefully prepares the ingredients for showing us the process of making fresh confectionery. However, this time, she employs the techniques of western pastry by putting a paste prepared by mixing small white beans and beet sugar into a cloth piping bag for whipped cream. She gradually pipes one after another little flower petal while turning the plate. As a whole, her movements are rich in artisan rhythm, looking crisp and clean, but are in fact the fruit of a long period of practicing and accumulation of experience. Perhaps this method of combining Japanese and western techniques is only possible against the background of this enchanting historical capital. Placed under each petal is ball-shaped bean paste seasoned with Japanese sake. Apart from its soft and fluffy texture, a bite in the mouth releases mildly sweet flavors accented by the aroma of alcohol.
Among her various creations, there is an exquisite collection focusing on, and bearing resemblance in both form and spirit, to objects in surrounding nature. The most well-known one is probably the yuzu-flavored “Kohakuto”, or amber sweets, named “Ore Fruit”. A thin layer of crispy sugar envelops agar with yuzu fragrance, and each is pierced with a comphor tree branch picked from the wild. They look like ores grown on trees, reflecting gorgeous rays under sunlight, radiating romance. It would be an utter waste of such gifts from nature if one failed to admire their beauty before consumption. Moreover, Ms Sugiyama also refrains from using artificial colorings. All the colors and seasonings from her confectionery come from natural food products, as in taro’s purple and yuzu’s yellow. That is why each and every one of her creations are simple and subtly elegant, carrying only half the sweetness of traditional Japanese confectionery, thereby suiting the appetite of modern-age people.
Our conversation with Ms Sugiyama gave us a deep impression of another characteristic of Kyoto people. They value traditions yet dare to strive for innovations; they absorb cultural nutrients from the past and then put their love and respect towards nature into their work. This unplanned visit was thanks to an encounter at a publication exhibition by Morioka Bookstore in Tokyo. Following some publications in the past, it is the first time that Ms Sugiyama put together her personal collection on Japanese confectionery in which she shares the bits and pieces behind her creations. The book features the concept and detail of 25 different types of Japanese confectionery, written in both English and Japanese, through which she shares with the public her unique view of Wakashi.