SENDAI – Since 1986, the Iwama family has been providing the residents of Wakabayashi Ward in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture, with handmade traditional Japanese sweets.
In the midst of Japan’s bubble economy, founder Yoshio Iwama revamped his sushi-ya (sushi restaurant) into Sendai Dango Ichifuku in order to guarantee a more stable source of income. Dango dumplings are usually made from mochiko (sticky rice flour), but after a bit of experimenting Yoshio was able to find a way of making dango with his leftover Sasanishiki sushi rice.
Simply referred to as Dango Ichifuku by its longtime regulars, the store was modernized by Iwama’s three children in 2017 while still preserving the traditional methods and values passed on by their father.
I stand before the now quaint little dango-ya (dumpling shop) a little past 9 a.m. In the open kitchen, I can see trays lined with Dango Ichifuku’s iconic kushi-dango (skewered dumplings), which sport an unconventional cylindrical form — versus your typical spherical dango — the result of being cut in a style reminiscent of the itokiri-dango (dango cut by a string) method.
The eldest son, Tatsuya, who now heads the store, greets me with an enthusiasm I can’t help but admire since I know full well he has been working since 3 a.m., hand-making everything to be sold that day. He offers me tea alongside one of Ichifuku’s bestselling products: yaki-dango, which come grilled on a skewer and glazed in a sweet soy sauce.
Tatsuya’s younger sister, Kiyoe, also comes to greet me with a smile. A former professional baker, Kiyoe is primarily responsible for pioneering Ichifuku’s menu and formulating new flavors, such as its popular winter specialty, nama choko daifuku, a chocolate ganache-filled version of the rice cake.
She asks how I like the yaki-dango. I take my first bite and, within seconds, all five pieces disappear into my mouth.
Unlike traditional, stickier dango, the yaki-dango is easy to bite into and tear apart. It’s soft on the inside and has a slight springy texture, which gives it just the right amount of chewiness.
“That’s the magic of Sasanishiki rice,” Kiyoe says.
I’ve never had dango with such a unique shokkan (mouthfeel) before. I now understand why Dango Ichifuku is especially proud of the fact that it uses locally produced Sasanishiki from Hiroshi Yokoyama, a cultivator in Osaki, Miyagi Prefecture.
Sasanishiki was once on par with Koshihikari, one of the most popular and commonplace types of rice grown in Japan today.
However, in 1993 Japan’s rice harvest suffered from an unseasonably cold, wet summer, and the Sasanishiki variety took a major blow due to its poor resistance to adverse weather and temperature. Farmers all around Miyagi Prefecture — where Sasanishiki is most commonly grown — were quick to drop the breed and begin cultivating other varieties, such as Koshihikari and Hitomebore, that are easier to maintain and yield larger crops.
“There aren’t many (Sasanishiki cultivators) left today,” Tatsuya tells me as I work my way through a kurumi– (walnut) flavored kushi-dango. “Yokoyama has been providing us with the same, high-quality grains since our father was still a sushi chef, and we want to continue supporting him. Yokoyama’s Sasanishiki is very easy on the teeth and tastes delicious, which is mainly why we still continue to purchase from him today.
“The only thing is that Sasanishiki dango go hard after a day, so you can’t leave them for the next day,” he continues. “That’s why even on busy days, we never start the next day’s preparation before midnight and always encourage our customers to consume everything on the same day.”
I nod, now savoring my third kushi-dango, this one smeared in a chilled zunda (sweet edamame) paste. I can see why Ichifuku’s regular customers keep coming back, decade after decade. The Iwamas mean business when it comes to ensuring their customers’ satisfaction.
What’s truly fascinating, however, is that this small family-run business in the suburbs of Sendai has over 16,000 followers on Instagram. This is where sibling No. 3, Takashi, who is responsible for Ichifuku’s social media presence, comes into play.
A former world-class hair stylist who’s given beauty lectures overseas, Takashi is no greenhorn in the game of aesthetics. Since going online, Ichifuku has seen an increase in sales and more non-local customers, both Japanese and non-Japanese. In particular, a lot of younger people have been visiting to purchase — and photograph — Ichifuku’s picturesque kushi-dango. When he admits the only camera he’s ever used is his iPhone 6 Plus, I nearly spit out my goma (sesame) daifuku in shock.
With nothing but an aged bamboo leaf and lacquerware from a secondhand store, Takashi makes Ichifuku’s sweets look luxurious. But he emphasizes that it all boils down to taste in the end: If the picture-perfect kushi-dango prompt people from around the country to make the long trip over to Ichifuku, it had better be the best kushi-dango they’ve ever had.
I, for one, will definitely come back. Perhaps in winter, when that top-selling nama choko daifuku goes back on sale.
Wakabayashi 3-11-17, Wakabayashi-ku, Sendai, Miyagi 984-0826; 022-286-6537; ichifuku-sendai.com; open 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; closed Mon., every 3rd Sun.; dango from ¥97; nearest station Nagamachi-Itchome; nonsmoking; cash only; Japanese menu; some English spoken