'Exhibition of the History of Japanese Confectionary'

by Naoko Kuramochi

Toraya Gallery

Closes Sept. 20

Although wagashi (Japanese confectionary) may seem unusual and very different from Western sweets, in fact it has a long history of being influenced by foreign foods.

The Toraya gallery traces the transformation of wagashi by showcasing various kinds of sweets from different historical periods, as well as documents, utensils, packaging and other ephemera.

Starting with nuts, which were considered sweets in the Jomon Period (circa 10,000 to 300 BC), the exhibition takes visitors through the ages, illustrating how foreign influence had an effect on the development of wagashi. Hard candy made from refined sugar, for example, was rare in Japan before Portugese missionaries brought confeito (sugar candy) to the country between the late 16th and early 17th centuries.

There are other wagashi anecdotes and facts that may surprise visitors. Yokan, now a thick gelatinous dessert made from azuki bean paste, agar and sugar, was originally a soup containing mutton. When a Zen monk brought it to Japan as a tenjin (a dish eaten as a morning or afternoon snack) from China, sometime between the Kamakura and Muromachi periods (late 12th century to late 16th century), it was a savory dish and not sweet at all. The Zen monks, however, were strict vegetarians, so they started to cook a similar dish, replacing the meat with azuki beans.

What makes this show particularly charming is that most of the wagashi on display are not models. They are real, edible sweets, handmade to the original recipes. A curator checks the condition of the sweets every day and orders new ones from a factory when needed. Made to the same dimensions as their original incarnations, it can be quite a surprise to see the differences between old and new wagashi standards. The sweets from the Edo Period (1603-1867), which includes a display of hyakumi-gashi (100 types of sweets), were often about three times larger than those of today.

This is the 73rd such exhibition from Toraya, which is also a famous wagashi company; and in the tea-room below the gallery, visitors can actually try some Toraya sweets, including Usurai, one of the Edo Period examples in the exhibition.

Toraya Gallery is in Akasaka, nearest station: Akasaka-mitsuke (Ginza, Marunouchi lines); open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; admission free. Though display signs are in Japanese, there is a free English leaflet explaining the exhibits. For more information, visit