You and I can talk all day about differences between this country and that, and we can detail any number of parenting strategies and discuss how they differ from one culture to the next, but there are more similarities than differences, and one of the biggest common denominators is this: Kids want sweets.
We can argue the pleasures and dangers of sugar until our teeth fall out, but whether or not most children want the sweet stuff is rarely in question. How much is permissible, however, is always grounds for debate.
In what form you let the kids at them, though can depend on you. Sodas and lollipops may delight young taste buds, but despite their bright colors and decorative packaging, they do little to trigger one’s aesthetic pleasure centers. More often than not, they look exactly like what they are: sugar delivery systems.
With skill and hard work, however, an artisan can turn sweets into something more sublime. Just like the French patissier, the makers of wagashi (traditional Japanese sweets) use sugar and other ingredients to make edible art — objects of such beauty that you may feel guilty taking a bite from them. Often reflecting the colors of the present or upcoming season, okashi (sweets) take many forms, with the most common ingredients being mochi (glutinous rice cake) and various sweet beans. In a professional’s hands, these components combine to create exquisite little sculptures.
Your family can make these too. The mochi, beans and other ingredients are as pliable and responsive to touch as clay or Play-Doh, and infinitely more delicious, so why not sign up for a wagashi-making workshop and find out for yourself.
There are classes to be found all over Japan, but perhaps one of the best places to try your hand at the craft is in the old capital of Kyoto. My family and I have made wagashi here twice. Of course, classes and specific desserts or ingredients may differ — as may the level of instruction — but I can say with certainty that it will be a memorable event.
In our classes, we were presented with the tools we would use along with a variety of prepared ingredients, including bean pastes in a range of colors. In both workshops we attended, the instructions were in Japanese only, but if you sit close enough to the teacher, it should be easy to follow them. The sculpting is done mostly with the fingers, but for certain steps we were given two simple wooden tools: a small sliver of bamboo with a sharpened end and a wooden three-sided baton shaped like a triangular rolling pin.
Children will love rolling the paste into balls in their hands, but wagashi creation requires a soft touch, so remind little ones that small, gentle movements will produce better results. This approach can be tricky (and possibly frustrating) for some kids, while for others, practicing such subtle movements is a fun and rewarding exercise. Either way, most classes let you make several candies in one session, so it’s helpful to remind them that if one doesn’t work, they’ll have a few more pieces to make, and hey, it’s all going in the belly soon after anyway, right?
The trickiest part for us was blending the colors. For example, to make the subtle shift from pink to white for a sakura blossom, we had to add a layer of white bean paste beneath some pink, and then press it just so in order for the lighter color to appear in the center of the petals. In another case, a small glob of green paste was added to yellow petals and spread smoothly to create a gentle gradation.
Each new creation involved layers of color, then when the time was right, we pulled out the wooden utensils and — carefully following the instructor’s movements — pressed, pinched and dented our delicate sugary orbs until petals took shape and each color took its place.
After each confection was finished, we were given small plastic containers to place them in so they wouldn’t be crushed on the way home. Framed in these containers made them look even more like sculptures, and our kids treated them with the pride and reverence of a jeweler upon finishing his masterwork — that is, until they got hungry. And there lies a lesson that I hope you learn from us: arrive with a full stomach. Otherwise, your creations may never leave the building.
From personal experience, I can recommend both places we visited. But of the two, Shichijyo Kansyundo was our favorite simply because we felt the instructors were warmer and moved a bit slower, which we liked. Also, we made four wagashi, one which we could eat before we left, as opposed to the three at our other workshop Kameya Yoshinaga.
Don’t feel bound to our experiences, though. Instructors vary, and there are many other places offering similar workshops. Visiting one could be the most fun you’ll ever have playing with your food.
A class at Kameya Yoshinaga, Kyoto (bit.ly/kameyayoshinaga), takes between two and 36 people, is 60 minutes long and ¥2,700 per person. A class at Shichijyo Kansyundo, Kyoto (bit.ly/shichijyokansyundo), takes between two and 40 people, is 70 minutes long and ¥2,160 per person.