Meet Junichi Mitsubori. With his platinum-blond, unicorn-streaked fringe, he looks like a Japanese rock star. He is, in fact, a third-generation Japanese wagashi (confectionary) master, who is using Instagram to show how skillful (and cool) wagashi making can be - attracting a new generation of kids to learn this age-old craft. Wagashi are traditional Japanese confections made from bean paste, often served with tea or given as gifts.
Junichi is one of Japan’s best wagashi artists, known for his refined, delicate, elaborate and delicious wagashi, who shot to fame when he won first prize in a competition on TV pitting wagashi artists against each other and from there he created a “wagashi ceremony” in 2016, a new style of showcasing wagashi-making, called “Kadou”.
Kadou is based on the concept of a tea ceremony, the Japanese traditional way of serving tea. Junichi's experiment of showcasing the wagashi-making process in front of customers was groundbreaking in the industry in Japan, where wagashi is traditionally served as a finished product or bought at a store, and customers rarely see how they were made nor know who actually made them.
Australia has never seen wagashi making like this before
This month, Junich visited Australia as part of Experience Japan to demonstrate his wagashi ceremony. Junichi held an audience in awe when he took to the Opera stage to showcase the artistry of working the neri-kiri (bean paste). Sydney’s winter weather proved to be tricky, causing the paste to be dry and brittle, but it wasn’t too much of an obstacle for Master Junichi. “My performance consists of many movements and I try to make each one of them refined and beautiful, showing the smoothness and gracefulness of the making process,” says Junichi. “It looks as if you’re watching a Japanese tea ceremony.
“Every time I do my demonstration outside Japan, I feel like I am a challenger who is going to be judged by ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. For the one at the Sydney Opera House, I think I got lots of ‘Yes’.”
Modesty is a virtue but it’s time for the wagashi chef to become known.
“When I attended a tea ceremony, a tea teacher started explaining artworks in the tea room and artists who made them," says Junichi as he recounts how he came up with the idea for Kadou.
"It started from the architect who designed the room, potters who made tea bowls, and calligraphers and painters who created hanging scrolls in the room to practitioners of Japanese flower arrangement. However, when it came to the wagashi, which plays an important role in a tea ceremony, what was mentioned was not the name of the person who made it but the name of the store. That is a long-running custom in the wagashi industry. Even though I value the virtue of modesty, at the same time, I think making individual wagashi chefs 'invisible' is killing the attention of young people to the profession, especially kids."
Japanese kids don't think being a wagashi chef is cool. Junichi wants to change that.
“If you ask kids what they’d like to do in the future, one of the popular answers is to become a patissier and make cakes," says Junichi. "Kids don’t admire wagashi chefs because they are 'invisible'. I was born into a family of a wagashi store but when I was a kid, I didn’t think wagashi chefs were cool.
“When you think about passing on this wonderful world-class wagashi culture to the next generation, I think it’s important to show people how cool wagashi-making is. Otherwise, all wagashi-making will be done by machines and robots in the future. Feeling that sense of crisis and my experience at the tea ceremony made me see wagashi chefs as individual artists and I decided to create a new way of showcasing them.”
Wagashi is meant to be eaten! Don't worry about destroying it.
Junichi’s hope is to give customers something they’ve never tasted before and make wagashi in front of customers. “I’d like customers to enjoy freshly-made wagashi, which is rare to have even in Japan,” says Junichi. This is because the neri-kiri is extremely fragile, which means it’s typically frozen, then distributed to stores. “Please do not hesitate to ‘destroy’ my wagashi in front of me when you eat it! You can cut it in half or you can just grab it and put it in your mouth. Don’t worry, I think there is the beauty of disappearance there and I appreciate it much.”
There is an enormous variety in the world of wagashi (traditional Japanese confectionery), but many of the recipes for wonderful shapes, flavours and textures are created from a base of a simple white bean paste known as shiro-an. It’s not quite as easy as it looks, but being able to make a good shiro-an is a necessary skill for anyone wanting to get started in wagashi.