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The Nocturnal Wagashi Artisan

When we think of a professional maker of Japanese sweets (wagashi shokunin), the stereotype could be a stern old man doggedly forming identical miniature delicacies in the expansive food basement of a Japanese department store, or perhaps a harried artisan hawking mochi from a storefront on the shopping street. However, in Nishiogi, there is a tiny bar that completely subverts these images of the wagashi artisan. In Wogashiya, a hip young woman offers you sake, while producing bespoken nerikiri directly in front of you.


A tiny owl perches in a single small window onto the dark narrow alley; its presence signals to customers that the shop is open. When you walk into the bar, the owner, master, as well as wagashi artisan, Mariko Tobe politely welcomes you. You will see the names of Japanese sake and an unusual menu on a wall of “seasonal nerikiri”—hand-shaped desserts made of white bean paste and mochi rice flour. Yellow, orange and red naturally dyed balls of white bean paste (shiro an) are arrayed on a counter, while Tobe-san prepares tools and the flavored anko to make nerikiri. With customers engrossed in her deft technique, Tobe-san happily introduces wagashi beginners to various styles, quickly creating items such as momiji (Japanese maple) and kuri (chestnut). 


Before owning Wokashiya, Tobe-san gained diverse work experience in the pastry and wagashi industry. “Since I was in elementary school, I always wanted to get a job cooking. I actually already decided which high school I wanted to attend when I was an elementary school student.” Her determination never wavered, and she got into a high school where she could acquire a cooking license. “There is a culinary department, and you can study for three years for a license— you have to learn nutritional science and food hygienic. At first, I was thinking about becoming a cook. Then I started thinking that working in a patisserie might be interesting, but after watching a demonstration sale at a department store, I became intrigued by wagashi.”


At a local department store in Saitama, she watched an artisan produce a sweet made of yellow-colored mochi, decorated with a small butterfly and a flower-shaped nerikiri with a strawberry inside. It was a very lovely ichigo daifuku. This made her think, “Wow, wagashi is amazing!” She explained, “I didn’t even know how to make nerikiri…I am Japanese, but I did not know anything about wagashi.” This motivated her to pursue a career as a wagashi artisan.


Subsequently, she inquired at “Kyousenka”, a store with demonstration sales in a Saitama department store, if she could work there. Kyousenka’s owner advised her: “First, you should go to a college and study.” So she enrolled in college. After she graduated, she worked at “Kyousenka” for a year and a half until it closed. “I then was a freeter, working for half a year, at a shop selling modern-style wagashi. I worked from morning till night and saved money. Then I started living by myself in Tokyo.”


“My college knew that I had quit Kyousenka. Since, I did not tell them that I got a new job, they offered me a job as a professor’s assistant. At the same time, I was also getting tired of that sales job, so it sounded like a great opportunity. I passed the interview and got the assistant’s job. That’s how I started working there.” She was an assistant instructor for six years until her contract ended. After that, she helped her acquaintances make and sell sweets.


When this work slowed down, she wondered what she should do next. One day, when she was walking around her neighborhood, she found this vacant space.“I thought it might be fun to own a bar… I use to drink a lot of sake after work especially when I was an assistant for the college. So, I thought that a bar would be nice. Like, let’s open up a drinking place where I can make wagashi!” That is how she decided to open Wokashiya. Tobe-san said jokingly, “Someone asked me ‘was it your dream to open up your own store?’ with their eyes aglow, but that was not the case at all. I feel bad, but it was really just a sudden idea.” Her shop was simply inspired by a vacancy sign.


A major renovation for the store was necessary since it had been a traditional “snack bar” for the past forty years. Consulting a contractor she met in another bar, she managed to redo the interior, building new shelves and counters.


Since she had to manage the bar by herself at night, she changed the design so the interior could be seen from the outside, a feature not characteristic of a snack bar. We asked if she worried of the dangers in managing a bar at night alone as a young female, but Tobe-san replied that she wasn’t worried. “No, there are usually so many people walking on the street. And I met so many people at bars and they told me that they will visit my place. And they actually encouraged me to open a bar. Rather than being scared or worried, I thought that it would be interesting. I did not have any negative thoughts.”


Tobe-san has good relations with other business owners in Nishiogi. She even prepared sweets for Cafe Orchestra for a while. She gives the impression that Nishiogi’s business owners trust and support each other. Perhaps, this could be another reason Tobe-san is comfortable opening a bar at night by herself.


Wagashi carries an image of being an especially rigid craft. Tobe-san, however, informed us about changes in the wagashi world. “It’s starting to become less strict. For example, wagashi artists who do it privately, they have studied, but perhaps not too seriously. Recently, there are so many people like that. So, I believe that you don’t really have to be formally trained to become a wagashi artisan… Nowadays, it is so easy to spread information, like if you want to hold a wagashi making class, you can quickly gather students. This is the era that you can do whatever you want. A long time ago, as you might expect, you had to train at a big wagashi store and your master would announce, ‘he/ she is trained well enough to be independent and own a store.’”


With the internet, there has been an informalization and democratization of this artisanal culinary knowledge. As Tobe-san described, technology creates many options. “You can easily advertise on Instagram, if you have around ten thousand followers.” Though a strict wagashi artisan stubbornly bound to time-honored tradition might be upset by this trend, this mix of modern technology and Japanese tradition could be seen as another way of transmitting tradition in a more fluid society.


Tobe-san wants more people to learn about Japanese traditional nerikiri, “I’m so pleased to see that my customers are happy every time I make nerikiri….and some have told me that they have never seen nerikiri before, and become very happy. Also, they bring new customers to my bar.” Tobe-san started doing this business just because of the “vacancy sign,” but she now feels that it was a great idea to open a bar when she sees her customers having a good time. In a normal wagashi store, they only stack their creations in a shop window, but Tobe-san customers’ pleasure is doubled by witnessing the amazing performance at the bar.


Beginning in November 2017, Tobe-san has been holding training sessions for customers. On Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, there are two classes a day: one from 12 pm, and one from 3 pm. They are by appointment only and are held only if there are more than two customers. Participants learn to make two kinds of seasonal nerikiri, with three pieces for each theme, and after the lecture, they can eat one of them with tea, then take the rest back home. (Nerikiri is preservable for three days in a refrigerator or for three weeks in a freezer.)


We observed one workshop with Tobe-san. Participants in the workshop have a variety of backgrounds. Some are pastry chefs or bakers, while others are interested office workers. The themes of nerikiri change seasonally, including traditional autumn “leaves” or “chestnuts,” or pop cultural themes such as “snowman”or “poinsettia.”Participants create nerikiri by using prepared ingredients and listening to Tobe-san’s guidance. Though at first it might seem difficult, Tobe-san’s clear instructions make it easier. Occasionally, she guides the pupils with her hands to teach the sense of forming a shape. In between movements, it is necessary to wet your hands with wet towels so the nerikiri will not stick to your fingers or the cutting boards. After shaping the form of a leaf, you can wrap anko inside those leaves. Then you may use a needle to draw veins on the leaves. When drawing a line, you must not press too hard with your fingers and just make a shallow line—something that is hard to get used to. Tobe-san then advised students to turn up the tip of the leaves to create an impression of delicate thinness. Tobe-san’s instructions are easy to follow, and she is good at lightening the mood. Perhaps it comes from her experiences working as an assistant at the college.


After making nerikiri, the participants are able to eat one of them with tea which Tobe- san made for us. Most of the novices decided to eat their least perfect attempts. Tobe-san said jokingly, “Everybody, destroy your evidence!” We were also able to choose which plate to use. The presentation of wagashi depends on a variety of seasonally themed plates.


Since Wokashiya is a bar, tea is served in tokkuri bottles usually used to serve sake, and we also had tea with ochyoko (sake cups). That day’s tea was hoji tea with a hint of yuzu. Participants conversed with each other for thirty-minutes while enjoying the nerikiri and tea.  Overall, the course is a chance to learn to make nerikiri in an amiable atmosphere. On the other hand, it is also possible to simply come during regular evening hours and drink sake while Tobe-san performs the delicate work in front of you.


Tobe-san herself became a wagashi artisan following a rather well-trodden path involving formal education and working at famous shops. However, she now has a small bar far removed from the staid image of department store wagashi  booth. Now she participates in new and more informal ways of spreading modern Japanese sweets to many people, while creating a new nocturnal wagashi and sake culture in Nishiogi (James Farrer, Aomi Takase, Fumiko Kimura, April. 19, 2018).

(interview by James Farrer, Aomi Takase, and Fumiko Kimura; Japanese editing by Fumiko Kimura; translation and Japanese transcription by Aomi Takase; copyright James Farrer 2018)

Hana Nishi-Ogikubo
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