Welcome to the wonderful world of Japanese sweets.




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Ahh, sweet summer is here and with it the glorious arrival of a everyone’s favorite flower – the peony!

 

With its spectacular display of colors (think pink, red, yellow and white!), lush, unbridled petals, and a delicate, intoxicating fragrance, it’s no surprise that the peony has been a delighting the senses for thousands of years. In fact, written records from as far back as 8 their enchanting beauty. Is it any wonder then that the peony is known the world over as “queen of the flowers?”

 

Today, peonies are just as stunning as ever and, thanks to new and improved varieties they're even easier to grow. There are three main types of peonies to consider when planting. The most common and widely available is the herbaceous peony (Paeonia lactiflora). Herbaceous peonies grow to about three feet tall, die back to the ground each winter, then sends up vigorous sprouts each spring. The other is the tree peony (Paeonia suffruticosa), a slow-growing woody-stemmed shrub that can reach up to six feet. The third is a hybrid of the two. A combination of all three makes for a spring garden that darn near looks like it jumped out of a painting.

 

As dazzling as peonies are, they’re surprisingly no-fuss and require very little attention (I’m talking to you, brown-thumbs!) They survive the harshest winters, are practically drought resistant, and aren't bothered by deer or rabbits. Though peonies fare best in cool climates, early-blooming varieties with low-chill requirements can thrive in even some parts of the deep South.

 

 

Sugar, sweetly spun Get a taffy-like substance called mizuame, meaning water candy. Heat it until it resembles molten glass. Using your bare hands, play with it (careful, it’s hot!). Now begin to shape your candy. Using a stick as a base, mold it, wrap it, pull it, and pinch it. Looking good! Use food dye for the finishing touches. Welcome to the world of amezaiku. Loosely translated as candy craft, amezaiku has developed over centuries. The art was originally brought to Japan from China. Amezaiku was first used to create offerings for temples and shrines. The art boomed in the mid-Edo period (1603–1867) when large-scale production of mizuame began. Yet today only a few amezaiku practitioners remain— the most famous, arguably, is Takahiro Yoshihara, owner/manager of Amezaiku Yoshihara. The small store is located in the old-school, downtown Tokyo suburb of Sendagi. Keen to preserve the candy-making tradition, Yoshihara wants to ensure that the art of amezaiku doesn’t die out. Alongside conventional Japanese cranes or brightly colored kingyo (goldfish), Amezaiku Yoshihara has a large array of items to choose from. The shop’s most popular shape is Amepyon, a rabbit whose pose can be customized upon request. To see more, visit ame-yoshihara.com

Candy-colored cuteness The fresh pastel, candy-colored hues of the wagashi or Japanese sweets at Uchu Wagashi (Made in Kyoto) scream spring. Almost too pretty to eat, the hard rakugan confectioneries are made of wasanbon sugar. Developed in the 1800s, wasanbon sugar is mellow in taste. It melds with and absorbs other flavors. Wagashi made with wasanbon sugar is typically shaped using special molds. The wood of these molds draws upon the warmth of Uchu Wagashi’s architecture. Comprising two branches, each is set in an old Kyoto house and features minimal styling. The FUKIYOSE Teramachi shop even has its own zen rock garden. At Uchu Wagashi, popular molds include animals: a hedgehog, a sea lion, a hippopotamus, an elephant. So playful! Which to choose first? The drawing set is another shop staple. Mostly made up of semi-circles and quarters, combine the pieces to create a drawing or masterpiece of your own. Or you can indulge in some seasonal goods. Try the summer sweets, glistening blue and green, in a cool, refreshing mint. Be transported to Kyoto. To see more, visit uchu-wagashi.jp

Taking—and tasting— sweets seriously A store in which you’ll find a modern-day tea salon; a dining space where green and herb teas can be paired with traditional Japanese sweets; a place to gaze upon a selection of tea tools and unique tableware. Higashiya Ginza is recreating traditional Japanese sweets—and the rituals surrounding them—so that they fit into busy, everyday lives. Yet some traditions are upheld. Confections at Higashiya Ginza are defined by seasonal tastes and nuances. Exquisitely packaged—as is expected in Japan—Higashiya’s offerings include jewelhued bar sweets and one-bite wagashi using current-day ingredients (such as monaka, crisp rice wafers plumped with a red bean jam). All maintain their origins, but get a sleek makeover. This juxtaposition of old and new, of the traditional and the contemporary, is what strikes many people about Japan. Higashiya Ginza founder and creative director, Shinichiro Ogata, is a staunch believer of continuing this practice. It is his hope to develop an entirely new way of looking at the Japanese identity. And through Higashiya Ginza, he is doing just that. To see more, visit higashiya.com.



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Photography by Daniel Farmer

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