A few months back I had the opportunity to meet with the Yamaguchi couple. Mrs. Yamaguchi is the president of Saiundo, one of the major local wagashi (traditional Japanese confectionery) producers in Matsue, which, along with Kyoto and Kanazawa, is one of the top cities known for wagashi. Saiundo operates in other parts of the San’in region as well, and they have also been involved in wagashi promotion abroad in places like New York City and Paris (see their English product descriptions here).

A motif that’s already come and passed, served with frothy matcha

The main Saiundo shop, a short walk west of Matsue JR Station.

Serving a wagashi market abroad comes with considerable challenges, especially when it comes to namagashi, fresh handcrafted sweets with constantly changing seasonal motifs (at Saiundo, they change every 10 days or so based on designs the artisans propose). Not only does it require educating new markets about the aesthetics of a dessert they may not be accustomed to the tastes of, but it requires having partners they can trust to retain the integrity of the company’s products, and even technical requirements such as special refrigeration. The weather can even provide challenges, as the ingredients used in wagashi are suited to the particular climate of Japan, and the humidity might not even be high enough to retain the right texture!

Within Japan, Matsue not only has the right seasonal weather for wagashi, but by my observation, they also seem to have the right cultural climate given the historical emphasis on tea culture (thanks, Lord Fumai). I asked about this, and asked business owners with a longer history in Matsue than I do, they expressed some challenges they face. A more Western-style sweet tooth has sweet most of Japan, so they have started providing Western style sweets in addition to their wagashi line-up so as to fit a wider range of occasions. Mr. Yamaguchi also mentioned the generation gap and that many high school students today say they hate azuki (sweet red beans), and key ingredient in the world of Japanese sweets. “That’s only because they haven’t had good azuki!” he insisted, obviously quite passionate about this topic.

I have to relate–after having a bad experience with azuki ice cream when I tried it when I was 12, I went almost a decade without being able to look at something the color of azuki without being disgusted. Having grown up in the US with only seeing beans used in hearty dishes like chili and never in sweets, it was also a bit of a mental thing to overcome. Thankfully, I now regularly eat–and enjoy!–wagashi with good quality azuki that retain their bean appearance, but I still am wary of processed azuki in mass-produced sweets.

Another challenge we talked about was the differences in taste. One of my favorite Saiundo products is “Manten,” a kanten (agar-agar, or vegetable gelatin) sweet with a starry sky motif only sold around summer. Because it stays fresh a little longer than hand-molded seasonal sweets, I brought one home to my family. They all thought it looked pretty and were excited to try it, but not a single person ate much. Something about the flavor didn’t sit will with them. Maybe it was not so much the light flavor, but the shocking lack of flavor from something that looked like it should be like Jell-o?

I often hear Japanese people say that Westerners probably don’t take a liking to Japanese sweets because they are used to much sweeter things like cake and cookies, but I’ve noticed that the opposite tends to be true. The first time I had fresh wagashi eight years ago it was too sweet for me to enjoy, despite my love of almost everything sweet. It felt like I was suffering to swallow something like sugar polished and packed into something even heavier and sweeter than any regular spoonful of raw sugar could be, and it made the matcha–which I already disliked due to my distaste of bitter things–taste even more sharply bitter than it otherwise would have been. Haha, my 18-year-old self, little did you know that you would go on to love both wagashi and matcha and consume them almost every week, but the experience still provides some insight I think most wagashi eaters or sellers have not always noticed.

It came up in the comments of my blog at some point and I wish I could remember and credit who said it (I have it narrowed down to a few of you in my mind!), but one of my readers made a very good point: western sweets dilute the sweetness with fats, but wagashi, naturally lower in fats, sugars, and artificial colors and flavors, have little to dilute the sweetness, thereby making wagashi very, very sweet to those who are not accustomed to them.

Perhaps if I had more familiarity with wagashi the first time I had one, I would have been more prepared for the sweetness, and I would have had more of an appreciation for it as edible craftsmanship. Craftsmanship with wagashi is something Saiundo and other wagashi shops in Matsue continue to encourage, and I happened to visit during an exhibition of edible sculptures. For instance, they occasional do weddings, and they had some examples of their personalized arrangements there.

And yes, those ones in front are what they look like–Shimane Prefecture’s official mascot, Shimanekko!

It’s very common to see wagashi sculptures that have plant motifs, like the following.



Camellia (tsubaki) are one of the representative flowers of Matsue, and this whole display is titled “Matsue.” The other key featured is the Horikawa Sightseeing Boat, which is seen at all daylight hours cruising around the Edo period moats than remain a key part of the city layout.

Speaking of celebrating local culture, two of the most impressive sculptures were of Izumo Taisha as it supposedly stood in the Kamakura Period, and a Yamata-no-Orochi mask as used in Iwami Kagura theater style. (However impressive, I’m not sure the sugar head spews real fire like the Iwami Kagura heads do.)

My favorite of all of the displays was this one that seemed to have a certain charm that reminded me of home. It probably felt western to me given the emphasis on fallen leaves, and given that wild squirrels are not really a thing in Japan.

Over the course of our conversation, a few small children came up to the second floor to view the displays, asking questions the whole time, like if these things were all wagashi and therefore all edible. Mr. Yamaguchi proudly answered each of their repeated questions, like “What color are wagashi usually?”

The comment they kept repeating to themselves was “wagashi sugoi… wagashi sugoi…

Wagashi are cool… wagashi are amazing…

I’ve mentioned before that I’m trying to get my addiction to dessert cafes under control. It’s difficult with so many of them all over town, but I’ve been doing pretty well, and that makes the times I do treat myself all the sweeter (that was only a semi-intentional pun). I had a number of things to do on this particular Sunday in early March, but the Matsue History Museum was on my way so I stopped in to Kiharu for a quick break.

The museum is located right around the samurai district and the castle, so the outside of the building was designed in an old Edo period style–seeing as it was built on the same ground as a high-ranking samurai’s house in the past. The inside, however, is very comfortable has a sleek design, mixing Japanese elements–such as tatami flooring–with western elements–such as nice bathroom features. While the exhibits do charge admission (though it’s cheap admission to begin with and foreign visitors get a half-price discount), it’s free to browse the temporary photo and art exhibits, look around the library and the gift shop, peak at the perserved tea house, or stop in to enjoy a beverage and sweets at Kiharu, the cafe facing the garden.

Given characteristics like the color choices and the raised stepping stones, this is a characteristic examples of Izumo style gardening.

There are plenty of ice cream, wagashi, coffee, and tea sets to choose from, and the wagashi here are all Kiharu originals.

Sakaiminato may have Kitaro-themed everything, but I didn’t notice wagashi there! I like the Nezumiotoko one best.

What are you doing there, Shimanekko? You’re not a youkai!

I had just gotten my fill of wagashi the day before (which means staying out of cafes isn’t my only issue!), so I went with a matcha cream soda–green tea, soda, and vanilla ice cream. It hit both my craving for matcha and for something sweet–but to prevent brain freezes or overwhelming my tastebuds, it came with regular sencha anyway. For those who aren’t familiar with the terms, matcha and sencha are both green tea, but matcha is powdered green tea that you consume, whereas sencha is made by steeping the leaves.

There’s still so many more cafes that make me curious and that I want to treat myself to, but I guess this will tie me over for a while.

On a different topic, tonight the Shimane Civic Center is having a free showing of Stu Levy’s documentary about the Tohoku region’s post-earthquake recovery, “Pray for Japan“. The San’in region out here in the west part of Honshu isn’t very earthquake prone, but that doesn’t mean we’ll go through this 2nd anniversary unaffected. There’s still a lot of rebuilding to be done, and we’re sending aid and good wishes from here.

Mascots are a very normal part of daily life in Japan. Each prefecture has their own mascot (and they compete for the best mascot prize every year), companies and organizations will have their own mascots, cities will have their own mascots, even certain aspects of cities will have their own mascots–as is the case with Peony-chan, who represents Matsue’s… well… peonies. Their reputation may already proceed them, though. According to the Japan Times on 11/20/12, “Sales of peonies from Matsue, Shimane Prefecture, are booming in Vladivostok after hitting the market in Russia’s Far East in 2009, virtually selling out every year because of their variety of colors and longevity.” The day Peony-chan came to visit, she was preparing for a trip to Taiwan.

Matsue peonies are especially well known on Daikonshima, where they can be seen all year round–though I’ve heard early May is the best time to see them. That’s when I’m planning on going! The other flower that represents Matsue is the tsubaki (camellia), which I’m looking forward to seeing around the castle in winter.

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While this is the only mascot of this size to pay a visit to my office, I don't see Peony-chan in my daily life as often as I see, say, Appare-kun, the PR champion of Matsue Castle!

Unlike most mascots he’s human(esque) and has a more varied set of expressions than just “happy” and “super happy”, but like most mascots, he can be made into any kind of product, especially edible ones.

I haven’t run into him in person yet, but I have seen his bride Shijimi-hime, based on a Shijimi clam (a specialty product of the area. Most of the Shijimi clams consumed in Japan come from Lake Shinji). This kind of encounter is also completely normal.

There is no mascot I see as often as Shimanekko.

Get it? Shimane (prefecture) as a neko (cat)? And notice the visual reference to Izumo Taisha, with the roof architecture and the shimenawa rope? You noticed that all, right? Of course you did.

Even if you didn’t, you can’t visit Shimane without noticing Shimanekko. Besides Shimanekko on the face of products from pencils to hand towels to cookies to bouncy castles in every place from rest stops to places of legend to your neighborhood convience store, there is also a Shimanekko dance.

Shimanekko and Appare-kun are so popular that they even get drilled with questions about whether or not they are friends and star in commercials for candy companies.

Furthermore, have you heard of the Yura-Chara Grand Prix? I didn’t until very recently either, but apparently many thousands of people did, and they voted for their favorite mascot characters. Out of over 860 entries in 2012, Shimanekko took 6th place! Good job being cute, Shimanekko!