Wagashi: Suetomi Kyoto Tea Ceremony Namagashi
We had an opportunity to visit one of Kyoto’s exceptional wagashi stores; Suetomi and interview the owner, Mr Yamaguchi who created a selection of Suetomi’s seasonal wagashi for us to photograph for this article.
Suetomi, founded in 1893 makes namagashi (生菓子), literally ‘wet confection’, for the tea ceremony. In addition to selling namagashi retail, today Suetomi creates confections for important customers such as companies, tea ceremony schools and temples. Some namagashi are not offered to the general public and are reserved for a certain customer only.
Suetomi is a jyogashiya (上菓子屋), the highest of the three varieties of wagashi stores. Traditionally, only jyogashiya were legally permitted to use sugar and they served the imperial household, the nobility and major temples.
Namagashi for the tea ceremony is of course sweet, often very sweet as it compliments maccha which is quite bitter. However, namagashi are not just for the stomach. The forms and motifs are always seasonal and natural and often based upon poems and paintings from classical Japan. This is a sweet for the learned and educated, to be enjoyed by the mind as well.
Upon arrival for the interview and photoshoot we were given late spring theme ajisai (hydrangea) namagashi.
Paku Eating Ajisai Namagashi in the Reception Room
Inside Ajisai Namagashi
Notice the azuki bean paste inside.
Kyoto Jyogashi Namagashi Throughout the Seasons
This is a selection of Suetomi’s namagashi throughout the season. The following text explanations are from a Suetomi exhibition catalog.
Etogashi, literally ‘Chinese Zodiac confection’.
The concept of the zodiac signs are very familiar to Japanese people and these originated with the Chinese calender. Suetomi makes a New Year’s confection based on the zodiac animal of the year. This is a rat. This year, 2008 is the Year of the Rat.
Eto Nezumi – Year of the Rat
Eto nezumi literally means ‘zodiac rat’.
Eto Nezumi – Year of the Rat
This is a pretty cute rat! And, all made of sweet bean paste.
The confection is called Hikichigiri and has been indispensable for Girl’s Day (March 3rd). It was once used for the celebration ritual in the Imperial Household. A theory tells that it was originally made of only rice cakes. Suetomi has made it more elaborate and suitable for spring with white and pink on the top of green.
Hikichigiri – Wagashi for Girl’s Day
April: Miyako no Haru
Miyako no Haru, literally ‘Spring in the Capital’.
Kyoto’s spring beauty is in the cherry blossoms, people gathering to enjoy them with a cheerful mood. Here in Kyoto, sweets with various colors representing the colors of new lives entertain people’s tongues and eyes. Here, pink represents cherry blossoms and green represents budding willows.
Miyako-no-haru – Spring in the Capital
Miyako-no-haru – detail
It is incredible what sweet bean paste can be made into!
The confections produced in Kyoto often represent the changing of seasons and the accompanying natural beauty. Karakoromo is based on the classical Japanese story, ‘Ise Story’. This famous poem features purple irises verdant in the month of May.
June: Sawabe no Hotaru
Sawabe no Hotaru, literally ‘fireflies near water stream’.
Fireflies live near cool, flowing water and these insects emit a greenish light. There are a number of short poems featuring the mystic beauty these insects create. The image here is of a firefly emitting its light while on green grass.
Sawabe-no-hotaru – Fireflies Near Water Stream
Sawabe-no-hotaru – detail
Japanese people have celebrated the coming of new seasons on particular days in the year and September 9th is one of them. The chrysanthemum flower is the symbol of this special day. People pray for their long lives sometimes by wiping their bodies with its dew and by drinking Japanese sake with chrysanthemum petals floating in it. This confection is designed from a chrysanthemum flower of high grace.
Kisewata – Chrysanthemum
Kisewata – Chrysanthemum
Kisewata – detail
Korin Ogata was a painter active in the Edo period. We can see his paintings done with his excellent skills on kimono patterns and on Japanese paper slide doors, etc. The design of Korin Chrysanthemum, made of azuki bean paste and habutae mochi is based on one of his paintings.
Koringiku – Korin Chrysanthemum
Koringiku – detail
In the Momijiga chapter of Japan’s most well known novel, the Tale of Genji is a scene where Prince Genji dances. The design of this confection is inspired by the image of Hikaru Genji dancing in gorgeous clothing. The paper fan that the Shining Prince held while dancing is the motif of this piece.
Momijiga – Maple Leaves
Momijiga – detail
The deep green color, whether of the pine boughs or holly leaves of the season is the symbol of life. Christmas is, of course, a Christian celebration familiar to people all over the world. This Japanese version of Christmas cake is made with the wish to look back on the past year and celebrate the coming of the new year with a purified heart.
Carol – Christmas
Suetomi now has two locations. The original mainstore is located in central Kyoto near the Gojo Station on the Karasuma Subway Line and the other in the food court of Takashimaya Department Store.
Honten – Main Store Front
Suetomi Store Sign
Suetomi Takashimaya Branch
English menu: none
English website: none
Hours: 9:00am-5:00pm, closed Sundays and national holidays.
Price: 500-1,000 yen.
Location and Access: 5 to 7 minute walk from either Shijo and Gojo Stations (Karasuma Subway Line)
Address: Kyoto-shi Shimogyo-ku, Matsubara-dori, Muromachi Higashi-iru
Takashimaya Branch: Takashimaya Department Store is located in central Kyoto at the Shijo-Kawaramachi intersection. Takashimaya is open from 10am to 8pm and is closed on January 1st only. English language guidance and maps are available at the information desk on the ground floor.