Matsue’s sweets makers take wares to New York

Kyodo

A project launched in 2004 by the city of Matsue, on the Sea of Japan, to promote its local specialty in New York City, is finally bearing fruit.

Local businesses and the city’s chamber of commerce recently took a long-awaited step to sell traditional Japanese sweets by launching their second and third outlets in New York.

To cater to local tastes, sweets makers came up with more than 10 types of specially designed products, such as “Small Apple,” made with apple flesh in the shape of an apple, and “Pumpkin Tart,” made with pumpkin to portray how an island in nearby Lake Shinji looks at dusk.

Along with Kyoto and Kanazawa in Ishikawa Prefecture, Matsue is well known for the traditional confections known as “wagashi.”

The tea ceremony, which was popular among successive rulers in the Matsue domain, has nurtured the culture of making sweets in the city since the Edo Period between 1603 and 1868. Harusato Matsudaira (1751-1818), the seventh feudal lord of Matsue, was a key promoter of tea ceremony, in which wagashi is often served.

“Due to the diversification of sweets, the share of wagashi has been decreasing year by year. We wanted to have our specialty sold worldwide,” said Takashi Watari, a Matsue Chamber of Commerce and Industry official in charge of the project.

Watari also hopes that sales of Matsue sweets abroad, if successful, will in turn help boost sales at home through the advertising slogan “The wagashi which has sold well worldwide.”

“We chose New York because the cultural capital of the world is the best (site for marketing), if we’re to go abroad,” he said.

Responding to the call from Watari, several confectioners in Matsue, including one whose business dates back about 200 years, established the project in 2004. Since then, the confectioners have held promotional events in New York each year, showing interested people how the sweets are made. In 2009, they secured the first selling space for wagashi in a supermarket. The sweets are made and frozen in Matsue and then shipped to New York.

Toshikazu Oka, the president of Saneido, one of the city’s long-established sweets makers, is heading the project.

“Many customers in New York watched the techniques by our craftsman in demonstration sales with great interest,” Oka said. “I hope people worldwide will think of Matsue when it comes to wagashi, not Kyoto or Kanazawa.”

“As most wagashi is free of animal fat and low in cholesterol and calories, it is healthy and good for dieting. This is the strong point of wagashi for people abroad,” Oka said.

Despite high expectations, the project isn’t glitch-free yet. Due to concerns about potential radiation contamination linked to the Fukushima nuclear disaster after March 11, project participants chose to stop shipping Matsue sweets for about six months. The yen’s sharp appreciation against the dollar also forced prices up.

However, the two new outlets, which opened last October, put the project back on track.

Masahiro Miyao, chief director of the Japan External Trade Organization’s Matsue office, which has been supporting the project from the beginning, said, “It’s rare for a group of makers in the same region to gather and try to make a foray overseas. With thorough efforts in market research and exploration of new business opportunities, Matsue wagashi will be more widely accepted by New Yorkers.”