Sweet times beside a scary Kyoto mound

by Alon Adika

Special To The Japan Times

“You have big hands, so make it a little larger,” Kataoka-san said, referring to the piece of sweet mochi (glutinous rice cake) I’d been shaping as dexterously as I could manage.

After stretching it out a little more, I again showed it to her. She nodded with approval. “Now place the red-bean paste in the middle and stretch the mochi around it,” she coaxed patiently. I was in a wooden town house in the old capital of Kyoto trying my hand at making wagashi (traditional Japanese confections).

Kyoto’s history and culture go back more than 1,000 years, and many regard it as the spiritual center of Japan. I was no stranger there, having visited many of its temples and shrines, strolled in many of its wonderful landscape gardens, partaken of its traditional food and more. However, this time I wanted to do something different; I wanted a more hands-on experience. In this city of artisans, I was sure I would find something.

I recalled that the tourist information office in Kyoto Station had some information about workshops in traditional crafts, so I headed over there. Among the ones available were woodblock-printing, fan-painting, bookbinding and lacquer-painting — though it was wagashi-making at a confectionary shop named Kanshundo that whetted my appetite. Straightaway, I called and booked a place for later that day.

As I arrived at the area of the shop a little early, I braved the sweltering heat and took a stroll around to see what I could find. Directly across from the shop was a children’s playground of the kind often seen in Japan, with bare patches of sandy ground, a seesaw and a small slide. The name engraved on one of the stone entrance posts was Mimidzuka Koen — which translates as “Ear-mound Park.” I realized that was because it is adjacent to a small grassy hill topped off with a five-element gravestone. Though the hill is known as Mimidzuka (Ear Mound), the name “Hanadzuka” (“Nose Mound”) would better describe it.

The gruesome story behind the name of this feature is related in Japanese and Korean on a sign in front of it. In fact, the mound is a reminder of the famous 16th-century warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s megalomania and the morbid customs of warfare back then. Interred in the mound are the noses and ears (though a lot more noses, it’s said) of Koreans killed during his forces’ invasions of the Peninsula. They were apparently brought back as proof of the warriors’ valor on the battlefield.

During the Meiji Era (1868-1912) Toyokuni Shrine deifying Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who died of bubonic plague in 1598, was reconstructed only steps away from the Mimidzuka. The original shrine in honor of the general was built in the hills to the west of the city shortly after his death. However, the Tokugawa regime that took over rule of the country in 1603 was uncomfortable with Hideyoshi’s posthumous popularity and so had it dismantled. Thereafter, for about 250 years, it remained only as a memory.

It was no accident that Toyokuni Shrine was reconstructed on its current site, since it had previously been the location of the old Kyoto Daibutsu, or Great Buddha of Kyoto. Hideyoshi decided it would befit the capital to have a Great Buddha, so he ordered the construction of one, and a grand hall to house it, that would surpass in both size and magnificence the famous Nara Daibutsu in Todai-ji Temple. Unfortunately, the Kyoto Daibustu, which was destroyed and rebuilt a number of times, no longer exists.

After passing under the gray torii gate outside Toyokuni Shrine, a stone path lined with orange lanterns leads to the exquisite Karamon Gate, a national treasure, with its roof of light-brown cypress bark and dark-brown timber frame, decorated with gilded ornaments. The gate is supposed to come from the city’s opulent Fushimi Castle that was built by Hideyoshi, but which was also dismantled by the Tokugawa government, with its parts distributed to various shrines, temples and castles all over Japan.

Off to the side is the shrine’s small treasure hall. I was interested to see what items were on display, so I paid the small fee and entered the deserted and musty building. Among the notable artifacts were some letters in Hideyoshi’s hand and an early 17th-century folding screen depicting a shrine festival. The most intriguing item, though, was a small case holding what was claimed to be one of Hideyoshi’s teeth.

But as engrossed as I was, it was time for the workshop. As I arrived back at the confectionary shop I noted with delight its poetic name: The Hall of Sweet Spring. Inside, a number of young women were sitting at a table on one side of the room, drinking tea and chatting. Across from them was a raised platform with a display of various types of sweets on green tatami mats with a calligraphy scroll hanging from the wall. Beside that was a flower arrangement in a light-green vase. It was like an altar to the god of sweets and candy.

A clerk then handed me an apron, announced that the workshop would soon begin, and led the participants up to the second floor. There were about 10 of us: a mother and daughter, a young couple and the group of young women who’d been drinking tea and chatting.

Kataoka-san was waiting upstairs. She was wearing white pants, a white shirt and a white hat. She asked us to wash our hands thoroughly, sprayed some alcohol on them and told us not to touch anything but the tools and ingredients from then on. The tools on the table included a rolling pin, chopsticks and a triangular rulerlike tool among others. Kataoka-san (whose given name I never found out, it being rather presumptious to ask directly)briefly explained the main ingredients used in Japanese sweets and then began the workshop.

For the next hour we rolled out dough and stretched mochi over sweet-bean paste. We rubbed dough between our hands to form fruit shapes and used the rulerlike tool to “draw” petals on flower-shaped sweets. It was soon apparent that making wagashi is not a piece of cake, even though our tutor’s effortless demonstrations made it look simple. As with most trades, the skill necessary to become a master confectioner is only gained through a lengthy apprenticeship.

In the end, I had four kinds of sweets in front of me: a pair of thin purple-and-white flower-shaped candies made primarily from a sugary dough; an orange winter cherry-shaped one made of mochi filled with white-bean paste and topped with a candy “twig”; a purple sweet in the shape of a Japanese bell flower and filled with red-bean paste; and a light-green ball-shaped one covered with shredded mochi.

Everyone, myself included, was smiling with delight as we all then took photos of the delectable sweetmeats. Next, an employee brought out some green tea and we sat down to taste our creations. Picking up the small bamboo utensil in front of me, I cut into the ball-shaped sweet. It was fresh and heavenly.

To get to the Mimidzuka and Toyokuni Shrine, take the 206, 208 or 100 bus from Kyoto Station to Hakubutsukan Sanju-san gendo-mae bus stop. Kanshundo sweet shop runs workshops daily at two locations: near Toyokuni Shrine and in the Arashiyama district. For details go to kanshundo.co.jp/museum/make/annai_e.htm.