Cherry blossoms, Sakura, plays a special part in Japanese culture that values the four seasons to the point where the term “flower” became synonymous with the word “cherry blossoms.” It is a flower that even symbolizes Japanese aesthetics and views of life. Let’s explore how cherry blossoms are expressed in the world of Japanese confectioneries, wagashi, which are small, fascinatingly elegant and beautiful.
Cherry blossoms as aesthetics of Japan
“On a spring day filled with calm and soft sunlight that paints the sky, the flowers scatter down without a placid temperament.”
Why do cherry blossoms hurriedly scatter away during the beautiful sunny days of spring?
Many foreign visitors to Japan may have wondered why so many Japanese people adore the cherry blossoms. It’s beautiful because it’s so ephemeral. Cherry blossoms embody the sense of beauty that can be said to be the basis of such Japanese culture. The song above is a poem by Heian's great poet, Kino Tomonori, and was selected as part of the "Collection of Ancient and Modem Times" that was enshrined to Emperor Daigo in the year 905. It’s a masterpiece that expresses the ephemeral transient nature of life through the cherry blossoms, which contrasts with the beautiful, calm scenery of spring.
The unchanging longing for the flowers
Cherry blossoms have also been widely featured in Tanka poetry. Its popularity is strongly rooted in the culture, where weather reports simultaneously announce the degree to which the cherries are blossoming during its season. In Japan, where a school semester ends in March and starts in April, cherry blossoms blossom during school graduations and entrance ceremonies, and can be said to watch over people bidding farewells, as well those embarking on a new journey. With such popularity, no wonder why it’s used as a motif in cooking and confectioneries. The long-established Japanese confectionery store called “Toraya,” which was founded in Kyoto in the late Muromachi period, serves about 70 types of confectioneries with cherry blossoms as its motif.
Traditional catalogue Shows the aethetics
The long-established “Toraya” uses a “confectionery catalogue” to record the designs of their products. One of their oldest catalogues, which are like sketch book, dates back to 1695, which, of course depicts a confectionery with cherry blossoms as its motifas well as the others. There are various types of in this field, but high-grade Japanese fresh confectionery stories tended to produce them after receiving their orders. Since the Edo period, confectionery stores throughout the regions made these catalogues to show to their customers when taking orders, and used them as a store record.
From blossoming to falling to the ground
The cherry blossoms only blossom for about two weeks. The Samurais idealized the nature of beautifully blossoming and gracefully perishing away with grace but without hesitation, and touted cherry blossoms as a flower that represented their style. Let’s explore how the Japanese confectionery world, which quickly anticipates the changing seasons, has been expressing the cherry blossoms, which are beautiful even as they are perishing away. We’ll examine the designs depicted in the “Confectionery Catalogue” that was drawn during the Taisho period, along with the different types of confectioneries.
The beginning of blossom: Hatsu-Zakura
“Hatsuzakura,” or sometimes referred to as “Hatsu-Hana,” refers to the first cherry blossoms that blossom on that particular year. It’s made of white grated yam dough, which envelops a sweet crimson jelly. The dignified straight line is a very modern design reminiscent of the vividness of a single flower that has bloomed.
The prime time: Taori-Zakura
A splendid blossoming of cherry blossoms is a true beauty that glorifies spring, which makes you want to snap it in half and take it home to show it to others. The design emphasizing the flower itself is exceptionally gorgeous. You can see that the Japanese cultural fancy of cherry blossoms is directly expressed in their sweet jellies (or Japanese cakes).
The falling: Hana-Ikada, Shin Hana-Ikada
Both express the petals of cherry blossoms flowing on a water surface. The motion of flower petals falling on a water surface and drifting away is expressed using the image of Ikada, a raft. It’s an exceptionally romantic design that allows you to visualize the scenery just by looking at it. The Shin Hana-Ikada (right) is a modern and stylish design that depicts such flow using straight lines.
Various styles blossomed in peace
The Edo period, ruled by the Tokugawa shogunate government, is touted as a peaceful era, in which no war was fought for about 250 years. Due to social stability, not only the Samurais of this era but also the commoners such as the townsmen had enjoyed and developed a high cultural experience. Since it became easy to obtain sugar that was considered to be a luxury product, it became possible to eat sweets not only in Edo, Kyoto and Osaka, but also in the rural areas by the late Edo period. There are many Japanese confectioneries that still retain its form from the Edo period, such as Sakura-Mochi (rice cake with bean paste wrapped in a preserved cherry leaf).
Sakura Mochi: then and now, East and West
What many Japanese people visualize when thinking of a spring confection is probably the Sakura-Mochi. This confection is said to have been created as a result of the Eighth Shogun Yoshimune, known as a noble general, having planted cherry blossoms in Mukaishima Island on the east coast of Sumida River in 1717. There are two types of Sakura Mochi: the Kanto Eastern style made from flour, and the Kansai Western style made of Domeiji jelly. It’s actually a favorite debate of people on whether one should eat or preserve the cherry leaves,. This is how much the general Japanese public loves this confection.
Inspiring one after another
There’s another confection called “Sakura-no Sato,” which has a texture similar to the popular Sakura Mochi made by Domeiji jelly. It mostly uses the same ingredients, and is composed of a layer of light pink (cherry blossom color) Domeiji jelly made with plenty of Domeiji flour, stacked together with a layer of neri jelly beans (pasted azuki beans) containing thinly sliced salted cherry leaves. The shades of pink and green express the scenery of the mountain villages, where cherry blossoms fully bloom. In addition, the subtle smell of the cherry leaves, along with a texture similar to the Domeiji Sakura Mochi will entertain its consumers visually and gastronomically.
Name of Confection: Too-Zakura (2019)Original Source: TORAYA CONFECTIONERY CO.,LTD
Pastry work (2019)Original Source: TORAYA CONFECTIONERY CO.,LTD
Name of confection: Too-Zakura
The name that is given to sweets is called Kamei. During the Edo period when the Japanese confectionery culture had rapidly developed, the act of envisioning sceneries from the confections themselves was regarded as an important elegant skill to develop during tea ceremonies. Even the same confections were expressed differently by each artisan. The Too-Zakura, referred as the cherries from far away, depicted in the picture conveys the cherry that have blossomed sporadically on a wild mountain. Hanami usually involves taking a walk or having a picnic under the cherry blossom trees, but the cherry of the wild mountains are visually tasteful as well. The light and shade of the distant cherry blossoms are represented by the red and white soboro (fine powders).
Name of confection: Miyo-no Haru Beni
The term, Miyo, refers to the reign of an emperor. Originally, this blissful confection represented their wish that their emperor would reign everlastingly, and that the peace will last forever. The red outer skin that’s shaped like a cherry blossom is filled with some sweet white bean paste.
Name of confection: Kumoi-no Sakura
The term Kumoi refers to the imperial court from its reference to somewhere on a cloud far away. Kumoi-no Sakura represents the cherry that bloom in the garden of the imperial palace that rest under a spring sunshine. The cherry flower that floats within the sweet jelly looks somewhat mystical. One form of enjoying a confection by examining its name is perhaps to understand the back-story and the passion of the artisan behind it.
Toraya Confectionery Co. Ltd.
Photo: Toraya Confectionery Co. Ltd.
Photo: Misa Nakagaki
Text: Makiko Oji
Edit: Saori Hayashida
Production: Skyrocket Corporation