It has been more than a year since I started my research on wagashi – Japanese confectionery – and adopted a new approach to material culture studies from the perspective of a food historian. I have to admit that my initial inspiration was purely personal: dazzled by the unusual but elegant visual forms of wagashi, I thought it wouldn’t be a bad idea of living with it for a year or so.
Of course, there is a lot more to explore beyond the aesthetic ‘look’ of wagashi. I started my exploration by raising a basic question: why are wagashi skilfully crafted and coloured? I chose to focus on the study of the category of jōnamagashi, as it is often considered the epitome of wagashi due to its fine taste, sophisticated design, historical significance and specific functions.
The present day jōnamagashi is typically a 5×5cm rice cake filled with azuki red bean or white bean paste, and is primarily intended as a complement to the taste of matcha (powered green tea) at the tea ceremony (Illustrations 2 & 3). Depending on the proportion and types of rice flour mixture used for preparing the rice skin, the degree of softness and ductility of the skin enables different crafting techniques and textures of the confectionery (Illustrations 4 – 9).
However, despite the unusual variety of forms and use of colours, jōnamagashi is by no means unique in terms of its ingredients, method of manufacture, technique and form, for it finds counterparts in other confectioneries in and out of Japan, both historical and contemporary. In Suiyuan Shidan, the eighteenth century treatise on Chinese cuisine, Yuan Mei included a ‘green rice cake’ recipe (Qintuan 青团) in the dim sum section: ‘Smash the green herb, mix the liquid with rice flour and with it make rice cakes. The colour is as green as that of jade.’ The green herb in this recipe is very likely to be mugwort, which is commonly applied in East Asian rice cake making in spring (Illustrations 10 & 11).
There are a few more examples in other cultural contexts to the crafting and colouring of rice cakes into vivid shapes of animals, flowers and vegetables (Illustration 12). However, jōnamagashi is unusual among wagashi and confectionery in general, for each one embraces an aesthetic theme with seasonal or literary reference evoked through its name, form and colours. This intellectual play of names and themes is owes partly to the omogashi (main confectionery) role jōnamagashi plays at tea ceremony. (Illustration 13)
Each jōnamagashi embraces an aesthetic theme with seasonal or literary references evoked through its name, form and colours. Tatsuta mochi is an autumn jōnamagashi produced by Kawabata Dōki confectionery, whose name and colour recall Tatsuta River renowned for autumn leave viewing and numerous related Japanese poems since ancient times. Moreover, its shape resembling a kimono is reminiscent of Japan’s mythical autumn goddess Tatsuta hime.
It is the close connection with the tea ceremony that fosters jōnamagashi’s aesthetic pursuit of the ‘tea taste’, a preference of nature and avoidance of over elaborated craftsmanship, as summarised by Tanaka Senshō, an influential early twentieth century tea master.
______________________________ Yuan, Mei, Shuiyuan Shidan, (1792).  Ōta, Sōtatsu, ‘Kashi no iro’ (Colours of Japanese Confectionery), Hito to shizen (People and Nature), No. 5 (30 March 2013), 9-11 (11). Tanaka, Sendō, ‘Gendai chajin to wagashi’ (Contemporary Tea Practitioners and Wagashi), in Wagashi, No. 6 (September 1999), 15-22 (21).
Ning Huang –
Ning is currently working on the study of wagashi (Japanese confectionery) design and history. Through her previous studies and experience of East Asian art and cultural histories, she believes that the small world of wagashi culture provides an unusual and interesting lens for the observation of Japanese social histories and economic, knowledge and cultural exchanges.
© Ning Huang, 2014. All Rights Reserved.