For more than 370 years, Yagenbori’s merchandise has added zest to Japanese meals. The seven-colored seasoning is sprinkled on a variety of dishes, from a steaming bowl of soba (buckwheat) noodles to grilled fish.
At the store in the heart of old Asakusa, seven small mounds of ingredients await the customers, ready to be mixed to taste. The Yagenbori rainbow consists of black (sesame seed), yellow (dried mandarin peel), brown (roasted red pepper) and orange (fresh red pepper), moss green (sansho, Japanese pepper), beige (poppy seed) and gray (hemp seed). When the veteran mixer scoops spoonfuls of each ingredient into a small wooden pail, you get your own shichimi-togarashi, literally “seven-flavored red pepper.”
“The manufacturing process has not changed since the early days. We cannot tamper with it,” said Akira Kuronuma, a spokesperson for Yagenbori, established in 1625. The store was originally founded near a namesake canal shaped like a yagen (the chemist’s mortar), in Ryogoku in old Edo, where many doctors lived and wholesalers of medicine were in business.
The seasoning was originated by the first generation proprietor who was inspired by Chinese medicine and believed that each of the seven ingredients is beneficial to one’s health. The seasoning caught on when the soba noodle was introduced into Edo a little later.
Unlike the old days, when all ingredients were home-grown, most ingredients must be imported from China and other countries today. Since the law controlling narcotics forbids the cultivation of poppy and hemp seeds by the public in Japan, the store buys them from Southeast Asia where they are heated beforehand to prevent budding.
The seven ingredients are prepared by three craftsmen in a factory in Fujishiro, Ibaraki Prefecture. “Roasting the red pepper is the key step since the hardness of the peel and moisture it contains is different for each crop,” noted Kuronuma. Changes in the weather must also be taken into account.
Currently, Yagenbori is headed by the ninth-generation proprietor of the Nakajima family. Other stores producing shichimi-togarashi since the Edo Period are found in Kyoto and near Zenkoji Temple in Nagano Prefecture. Although major food manufacturers have come up with mass-produced products, Yagenbori considers them to be “something different.”
The store in Asakusa seems to be a stop favored by tourists visiting the noted Sensoji Temple and the Nakamise street offering souvenirs and traditional ware. If the customers do not know their favorite pungency, they can choose from “very hot,” “medium hot,” “slightly hot” and “not hot” products. Twenty and 30 grams of the seasoning are available at 350 yen and 500 yen, respectively.
The store also offers various furikake, powder mixtures to season rice. The editors of a computer magazine took notice of a spicy furikake and bought large quantities to give away to the readers as “hacker furikake.” Since word got out that capsicin contained in red pepper helps break down cholesterol, red pepper in general has attracted attention for its slimming effect. But Kuronuma warned that people will hurt their stomach by taking red pepper in large quantities.
According to the spokesperson, the business is not particularly profitable. But Yagenbori’s steady style of management has allowed the store to enjoy stable sales before and after the asset-inflated bubble economy burst.