The creation of wagashi (traditional Japanese sweets) already boasts a palpable sense of craftsmanship, but, like noted wagashi master Junichi Mitsubori, designer Shiho Sakamoto is harnessing technology to design and disseminate wagashi for the 21st century.

Sakamoto strives to bridge the unchanging, eternal grace of Japan with new generations just discovering — or rediscovering — wagashi. A quick perusal of her Instagram, which has over 15,000 followers, reveals shots of delicate, often futuristic-looking wagashi with names such as “Cloudy Fog” or “Fluorite,” a far cry from the genre’s typical floral motifs. Although wagashi’s foundations are humble ingredients like adzuki beans, agar and mochi rice, the care Sakamoto takes when preparing these seemingly basic ingredients makes it clear she views the process as an art form.

Against the constant barrage of media and advertising, Sakamoto believes people are drawn to the quiet of wagashi. Thanks to her previous IT job at Cookpad, an influential recipe-sharing database, Sakamoto is no stranger to strategically sharing food content online. The small size of wagashi, she points out, makes it a good fit for Instagram, helping it find its place not only in hushed, grand tea rooms but on a variety of media and screens.

In 2017, a short film featuring her sweets-making process created by Hue Inc., simply titled “Wagashi,” won the Raw Best Food Porn Award at the Food Film Festival in New York. It reveals the beauty found in the heating of sticky mizuame (starch or corn syrup sweetener) and gentle stretching of gyūhi (sweetened, kneaded mochi dough) to create the sweets.

Sweet success: Shiho Sakamoto blends tradition with technology to create innovative, digital-friendly wagashi sweets. | COURTESY OF SHIHO SAKAMOTO
Sweet success: Shiho Sakamoto blends tradition with technology to create innovative, digital-friendly wagashi sweets. | COURTESY OF SHIHO SAKAMOTO

Sakamoto is hyperaware of her role in preserving the image and perception of this long-standing delicacy, performing every traditional step in the wagashi-making process from scratch. But she has also welcomed, thoughtfully, the inclusion of some Western ingredients, such as New Zealand-produced wine or even cherry-red chocolate, into her sweets.

“Maybe (making wagashi more digital) shows my respect to wagashi culture. I don’t want wagashi to be perceived negatively because of me and any carelessness on my part,” Sakamoto says, noting she doesn’t want her innovations to get in the way of the sweet’s minimalist appeal. “(Wagashi) is not overly sweet or spicy,” she says. “It doesn’t say a lot. It exists in moderation.”

Sakamoto begins with a sketch, then works out how to make it come to life through the ingredients. She describes her process as design-driven: “It is not about technique, but sensitivity,” she says.

“The question (always) comes, ‘What is wagashi?’ The more I make, the more I think. The more I design, the more people ask, ‘What is wagashi?’ At the same time, when I spread the beauty and meaning of wagashi to the world, I also need to explain it using (predetermined) boundaries. That’s why I think a lot and (often) feel conflicted,” she says. “But within these boundaries, I can play a lot.”

For Sakamoto, “play” can mean collaborating on multisensory wagashi experiences, where technology helps set the stage. She’s a member of The Tea-Room, a “a Tokyo-based art collective creating a future tea ceremony.” And earlier this year, Sakamoto partnered with Dentsu Inc.’s Open Meals food-tech project to produce edible Cyber Wagashi as part of an initiative to “(realize) the concept of super futuristic restaurants.”

Using a proprietary algorithm influenced by real-time weather and pressure conditions, Sakamoto supervised the 3D-printed wagashi, which change shape and color based on Tokyo’s weather conditions, allowing people to both visualize and eat the city’s ever-changing sky. In bridging a technological gap to make the traditional sweet more accessible, Sakamoto’s wagashi is something anyone can fall in love with today.

For more information about Shiho Sakamoto, visit shiwon.jp.

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