KYOTO - The heir of a store specializing in a confectionery style with more than 300 years of tradition in Japan’s ancient capital is hoping her youthful reimagining of yatsuhashi sweets will help attract a new generation of Kyoto locals and carry on its legend.
Kanako Suzuka, daughter of the owner of the famous Shogoin Yatsuhashi Sohonten Co., has transformed the traditional treats into delicate and colorful miniatures with her new “nikiniki” brand.
The 35-year-old said that while yatsuhashi remains popular among tourists, it is sad to see how it has become more of a souvenir than a common snack for locals.
“The nikiniki brand is an introduction to the original yatsuhashi,” Suzuka said. “I am hoping that nikiniki will be the catalyst to bring back the Kyoto natives, especially the younger generation and have them enjoy yatsuhashi more.”
Yatsuhashi has been one of Kyoto’s most famous sweets since 1689 and honor Yatsuhashi Kengyo, a famous harp player, who passed away in 1685.
The sweet usually comes in two basic styles: the harp-shaped thin brown cookies baked to perfection, or white floppy steamed layers with sweetened bean paste inside. Japanese nikki, or cinnamon, provides yatsuhashi with its unique taste.
Suzuka has completely recreated the yatsuhashi image to offer a whole new lineup that is almost too cute to eat.
The nikiniki brand uses colorful layers of steamed yatsuhashi that are cut into various shapes or rolled up into tiny pieces that are intricately folded and put together.
In March, there are dolls in kimono to celebrate Hinamatsuri, or girls’ day, while Christmas sees Santa Claus and his reindeer in miniature, Characters from Japan’s fairy tales and fancy gems are made throughout the year.
At the store in Kyoto, customers are also introduced to a selection of jams, including strawberry, apple and rum-soaked raisin, and can wrap their choice in yatsuhashi layers that form a blossom.
While Kyoto’s elder generations still visit the Shogoin store that has been in operation at the same site since the Edo Period (1603-1868), Suzuka has met young people who have never even tasted yatsuhashi. There also seems to be a perception that nikki is a somewhat unusual ingredient.
“But I think the image of the nikiniki products have attracted more young people and has made it easier for them to give yatsuhashi a try,” Suzuka said. “I’ve been told ‘hey, I didn’t know I could eat yatsuhashi!'”
For Suzuka, yatsuhashi has been part of her life since, as a baby, her mother fed her pieces of the steamed version. Suzuka ate it as her daily treat and her playmates were the employees of the company run by her father.
By the time Suzuka was in elementary school, she knew that she wanted to take over operations of her family’s company.
After graduating from Kyoto University in 2005, Suzuka joined the family business in 2006 after working at a major research firm, and launched the nikiniki brand in 2011.
The concept came naturally to her as when she was a young girl she had always imagined how appealing her favorite snacks would be if they were made in pink or in the shape of a heart.
But while the nikiniki style may seem like a new approach in Shogoin’s near 330-year history, Suzuka says the fundamentals have not changed.
The proportion of nikki used in nikiniki products has stayed exactly the same as in traditional yatsuhashi.
“The most important thing is not to change the taste of the yatsuhashi. That’s one aspect I want to stay loyal to for our long-time customers,” she said, adding that the family philosophy has always been to “respect the local area and its people.”
“We are using the original yatsuhashi to make nikiniki products, so in that sense, nothing has been changed,” she said.
Suzuka often gets her inspiration from traditional Japanese tea lessons where she wears kimono that reflect perennial flowers. Meanwhile, the Japanese waka poetry she studies has offered a whole new sensibility toward the four seasons.
Suzuka has also traveled around the globe, studying English in England and taking pre-MBA courses at the University of California in San Diego as an undergrad, all of which has helped her acquire a stronger sense of her identity as a Kyoto native.
The nikiniki outlet in the corner of downtown Kyoto is now visited by customers of all backgrounds.
A 37-year-old woman said she had never enjoyed yatsuhashi until she discovered nikiniki, despite being a Kyoto local. “I now buy them for myself and even bring my friends here,” she said.
For now, Suzuka has no plans to expand her nikiniki business outside of Kyoto and hopes that it will attract more people to her hometown. “I want Kyoto to progress and shine … It really makes me happy when people tell me nikiniki brought them here,” she said.