Japanese legend’s sweetest hero

by Yuko Naito

Kintaro was the childhood name of Heian Period samurai Sakata no Kintoki, who was said to have defeated a bear in sumo wrestling as a child. Toy representations of Kintaro riding a bear have come to symbolize strong and healthy boys, and are often displayed on Children’s Day, May 5 (formerly Boys’ Day).

There is even a candy featuring the boy’s face: Kintaro-ame. But being described as “Kintaro-ame-like” doesn’t necessarily have a positive implication. Because the face on every cut end of Kintaro-ame is the same, the description can be used to mean someone who looks just the same as everyone else and has no distinct personal character.

The origin of Kintaro-ame is unclear. It is generally believed that the manufacturing technique was invented in the late Edo Period in the Kansai region. The motifs originally used were Okame (a funny-faced woman) and Fukusuke (a man with a big head), symbols of good fortune.

It is said that a Tokyo candy maker learned of Okame candy in the early Meiji Era, and took up Kintaro as a new motif, simply because Mount Ashigara (where Kintaro spent his childhood) is in the Kanto region. The artisan who created the first Kintaro-ame was the second owner of the Kintaro-ame Honten shop in Negishi, Tokyo.

Today, Kintaro-ame is still manufactured every day, by almost exactly the same traditional method, at a small factory on the second floor of the shop.

Amid the sweet smell of sugar and thick cornstarch syrup, Kintaro-ame Honten’s 11 employees (all male) knead large pieces of pink, brown, green and white taffy.

Kneading the hot, heavy taffy, which is about 60-70 C, is tough work. “The skin on the palms of our hands has gradually become thick and resistant to heat from handling the taffy every day. We take pride in this as candy makers,” says Tetsuo Watanabe, the current president of Kintaro-ame Honten.

The ball of taffy is divided into different-size pieces and colored with an edible dye. Each piece is then flattened into a prescribed size and shape, and stacked in a fixed order. Then the pile is rolled up lengthwise, creating a massive column-shaped candy more than 30 cm in diameter.

The still-soft candy is then stretched out through a special machine until it is long and thin like a string (a process which was done by hand in the old days), and cut into small pieces before it becomes too hard.

It takes Kintaro-ame Honten’s workers only 20-25 minutes to make a 35-kg batch of Kintaro-ame. “We have to work briskly, since the candy gets hard very quickly,” Watanabe says.

At the height of the candy’s popularity, Kintaro-ame Honten had more than 40 branch shops run by former apprentices. After World War II, however, Japanese lifestyle and tastes in food changed drastically, and the demand for Kintaro-ame declined. Many Kintaro-ame candy shops were forced to close down, and now only five shops survive in Tokyo.

In such a tough situation, Watanabe, the fifth owner of the shop, has made various efforts to maintain the business his family has run since around 1870.

While continuing to make traditional Japanese candy using only sugar and melted syrup, his shop also began creating Western-styled, fruit-flavored candies with artificial fragrances and flavors to meet customers’ demands.

They also started accepting orders from individual customers for custom-made original candies, with designs such as customers’ faces and names, cartoon characters, the Seven Deities of Good Luck and company logos.

This idea has proved popular, particularly with couples looking for reasonable but unusual gifts to give guests at their weddings. Also, salespeople wanting to make a strong impression on their clients have recently started showing interest in buying candy incorporating their name and face.

Kintaro-ame Honten charges 35,000 yen for 100 small packages of candy, each containing several different designs; this is cheaper than buying telephone cards, another popular gift, which are usually priced at 500 yen each.

“Sometimes the faces we make don’t look very much like the clients,” Watanabe confides. “A long face becomes too round, or straight long hair looks permed. It’s all a matter of timing when piling up the parts.

“I have had some foreign customers, too — with black skin, white pinkish skin or no hair. It’s easier to make candy of people with distinctive features like that.”