A rapt audience watches in silence as a delicate confection in the shape of a flower blooms in the experienced hands of a wagashi master. Junichi Mitsubori, a third-generation wagashi (Japanese dessert) artisan hailing from Yokosuka City, Kanagawa, does not embellish his movements as he crafts the sugary gyuhi (glutinous rice flour mochi) with his fingers and a haribashi (stylus).
The audience is gathered for the presentation of “Kado: New Art of Wagashi,” Mitsubori’s new bilingual book on the wagashi form. The 43-year-old Mitsubori is one of Japan’s most recognized wagashi artisans and a champion of kado, which he defines as a new “way of wagashi,” a term that echoes the meticulous care and preparation involved in sado (“way of tea”). In 2016, Mitsubori founded his own school of kado, the Kado Ichika-ryu, which “uses bespoke utensils and calculated gestures” to produce a highly stylized wagashi experience. With his style of wagashi presentation, Mitsubori aspires to create art that will “soothe the soul” and communicate Japan’s unique bikan (sense of beauty).
The creation of wagashi goes beyond simply crafting a beautiful dessert, says Mitsubori. It is a performance in which the finale is “moist, perishable living art destined to lose its sculptural beauty. … This fleeting nature of wagashi, like human life, again captures the heart.” To Mitsubori, the beauty of the performance is as crucial to kado as the artistry of the dessert itself.
This motif is evident in Mitsubori’s “performance piece,” the intricate chrysanthemum benirangiku, that serves as the centerpiece to his form of kado. As he carefully manipulates the velvety red gyuhi, Mitsubori’s precise and elegant movements draw the eye to each petal as it emerges.
In ancient Japan, the most common desserts were derived from fruits and nuts, bite-size and rather plain meal-finishers. Wagashi evolved in the 17th century in response to this, influenced by Chinese confectionery from the seventh century, the introduction of sugar cane from Okinawa and European tastes from the Portuguese explorers that landed on Tanegashima Island in 1543 and brought with them European sweets containing eggs, milk and large amounts of sugar.
Several types of wagashi emerged, everyday sweets such as manju, yokan and dango and forms of jogashi (decorative wagashi) such as nerikiri — Mitsubori’s preferred style — which originated in the Edo Period (1603-1868). The techniques for creating these jogashi flourished alongside Kyoto’s tea ceremony culture and spread to other parts of Japan. From inception, jogashi were handcrafted by artisans who worked in tandem with tea ceremony hosts to create an experience that reflected the season, guests or occasion.
Nerikiri are made from a combination of shiroan (sweetened white bean paste) and gyuhi, colored and crafted according to the season. Intricate nerikiri designs are accomplished in two ways: tegata nerikiri, where the desserts are manipulated and decorated by hand or with utensils; and kigata nerikiri, which are made with a wooden mold. Done well, the result of both techniques is exquisitely crafted sweets, that are at once intricate and delicious.
Mitsubori first gained attention when he won TV Tokyo’s “TV Champion R” dessert competition in 2010, but his popularity grew when he initiated a daily photo project on Instagram called “Ichinichi Ichika” (“Wagashi of the Day”) in the spring of 2015 to promote his work to a wider, younger audience. The image-centric platform became the perfect stage for Mitsubori’s elaborate creations.
Attention to detail
As with many of Japan’s traditional arts, each piece of wagashi is crafted with great consideration to reflect elements of nature and Japan’s four seasons.
Since the birth of Ichinichi Ichika, Mitsubori’s creations and active social media presence has helped spread awareness of wagashi to an international audience. In 2017, Mitsubori was invited to put on a kado performance at the Sydney Opera House in Australia and was the first wagashi artist to showcase his work at the Salon du Chocolat in Paris. So far, Mitsubori’s Instagram account has amassed over 25,000 followers.
In his presentation, Mitsubori is joined by sado master Souchoku Umehara and kashi kigata (dessert wood mold) sculptor Kazushi Tanaka, both of whom are featured in the book. Mitsubori insists that kado cannot be achieved by the wagashi artist alone and, like the tea ceremony experience, is perfected through the efforts of a host of artisans whose painstaking attention to detail heighten audience enjoyment.
Through his social media network, Mitsubori has connected and collaborated with other young artists striving to look beyond Japan to keep their art form fresh and interesting to a modern audience. During a recent presentation, Mitsubori gave a kado performance accompanied by a composition written by a musician he had connected with on Instagram.
Their mutual appreciation over social media led to an artistic collaboration in which Mitsubori developed a piece of wagashi and the musician created an “answer song.”
Yet even as they delight a new generation of dessert enthusiasts with new collaborations and evolutions, these Japanese craftsmen never lose sight of the long history of tradition that makes their craft valuable and unique.