It’s not hard to find wagashi in Tokyo. From the exquisitely crafted sweets you get to relish during a tea ceremony to the plastic-wrapped takeaway treats you find on the shelves of Seven-Eleven stores, these mochi and azuki bean balls are available pretty much everywhere.
What is rare, however, is meeting a wagashi chef who approaches the precise ways of this culinary tradition mainly through instinct. Tokyo-based Shiho Sakamoto is one such chef. She has become known for her imaginative wagashi, which put a contemporary spin on the sweet and turn it into something of an artwork. She uses unconventional colours, textures, shapes, and names for each sweet she creates.
Her designs are never repeated, and when she is commissioned to cater for an event (her list of clients includes the likes of first lady Akie Abe), she will chat to the client about the mood and theme in order to come up with an original sweet that perfectly represents the occasion. She openly admits to challenging conventions and says she would like to rejuvenate the art of wagashi, with the aim of raising interest in it around the world.
Like many Japanese chefs, Sakamoto is inspired by the seasons, but the way she expresses this inspiration is unique. For example, this August she created a wagashi called ‘Summer Days’, which is made up of a thin strip of white sugar that’s shaped as a rectangle and curves delicately upwards at one end, topped with two small transparent blue rectangles of agar (jelly).
The agar blocks are positioned just on one corner of the white base, with one blue piece balancing precariously on top of the other. Expressing the summer sky and the blue ocean, it’s so subtle and simple yet utterly beautiful and interesting to behold.
In early October, she treated fans of her Facebook page – which is like a gallery of artisanal sweets – to a creation titled ‘Start of a Chilly Evening’. Venturing far from the usual circular shape, Sakamoto fused three strips of agar – purple, white, and brown – into a delightful trapezium that not only depicts the mood of autumn but also shows off her wonderfully unique style of wagashi.
To contact Sakamoto for event catering or for information on her wagashi workshops, visit her Facebook page at www.facebook.com/wagashi.shiwon