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A modern twist to traditional snacks

by Robbie Swinnerton

Nowhere is the intersection of Japanese food culture and style more obvious than in the genteel, refined world of wagashi. For centuries, Japanese confectioners, especially those associated with Kyoto and the rituals of the tea ceremony, have produced sweets of astounding intricacy and beauty.

But, as with Japanese cuisine, tradition is just the starting point for inventiveness. Over the past decade, one of the leaders of the movement to develop contemporary wagashi has been Higashiya, which is marking its 10th anniversary this year.

Created by noted designer Shinichiro Ogata, the original Higashiya shop overlooking the river in Tokyo’s Naka-Meguro set a new standard for matching design with sweets. It is still mourned by those who used to browse the gleaming display cases on the ground floor or linger over bowls of frothy matcha or intensely sharp gyokuro tea in the upstairs tearoom.

These days Higashiya has three Tokyo branches. The main address is an elegant second-floor shop overlooking the main Ginza thoroughfare. With a tranquil tearoom attached, it’s just the place to relax and recharge following a busy afternoon in the department stores.

The second location, in Nishi-Azabu, was given a total refurbishment this spring. It is now a stylish boutique offering textiles and Japanese accessories along with green tea and wagashi.

The third outlet, a block away from Omotesando Station, also melds sweets with a lavish dollop of style. Little bigger than a kiosk, built into the side of the street, it has a tiny footprint. It also has a rather different lineup.

It is called Higashiya Man. But this is not intended to reflect the menswear in the surrounding fashion boutiques. It reflects the main focus of the shop: manjū dumplings. Through the takeout window on the street, you can see the beautiful copper steamer in which a range of those dumplings are heated.

Currently there are three varieties: large puffy, soda manjū (i.e., made with baking soda) filled with tsubu-an (sweet, semi-crushed red beans); amazake manjū, smooth white buns prepared with cultured rice and stuffed with koshi-an (sweet red-bean paste); and a dark-brown variety, made with kurozatō (black sugar).

Another item that is special to this outlet of Higashiya is miso-dango. These small balls of steamed mochi (pounded sticky rice) are served on skewers with a thick savory-sweet jam made from red beans seasoned with miso. Arrayed in their red lacquered trays, they make a highly attractive sweet snack.

The other half of the shop offers the typical Higashiya line of delicate confections. Besides the year-round selection of hitokuchi-gashi (one-bite sweets), there are also seasonal specials. To mark the autumn full moons of September and October, there are limited-edition tsukimi (moon-viewing) dango. Available only on Oct. 16 and 17, these are best reserved ahead of time.

Higashiya Man: 3-17-14 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku, Tokyo; 03-5414-3881. Open daily 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Nearest station: Omotesando (Chiyoda, Ginza and Hanzomon lines). Also branches in Ginza and Nishi-Azabu. www.higashiya.com