Meet the Japanese Willy Wonka creating different scenes with jelly and hiding them in squares of chocolate.
The Japanese are well known for their attention to detail, particularly when it comes to food art.
But there’s one Japanese confectionary company elevating sweet-making to a whole new level – it’s called Nagatoya, and it’s long held the position of the proverbial Willy Wonka of Japan.
Nagatoya has been on the scene since the mid-19th Century, making it one of the longest-running and storied companies in the city of Aizuwakamatsu in Fukushima Prefecture, about 200 kilometres north of Tokyo.
It specialises in wagashi confectionary, a candy usually made from plant-derived ingredients and served with green tea. Glutinous rice cakes like daifuku and mochi, and sweet dumplings like dango all feature prominently in the company’s repertoire.
The taste is different depending on where you take your first bite.
Nagatoya’s latest line of chocolates, titled ‘Fly Me to the Moon’, is anything but ordinary. What looks like a standard block of chocolate from the outside contains intricately designed scenes in each cube of chocolate. It's made with champagne gelatine (made from seaweed, not actual gelatine) and sweet bean paste.
The images on each cube depict a bird flying towards a moon with slight variations so that together they create a ‘flip-book’ style effect.
“The series aims to convey the traditional wagashi technique to future generations,” Nagatoya’s fifth shop owner, Takao Suzuki tells SBS Food.
“I am making this series because I think young people and overseas people should know about the merits of homemade sweets by modern design.”
Suzuki says the idea took around 12 months to develop, and carried out by a younger team of craftspeople who were “highly motivated and worked hard until the end”.
Each block is handmade, with six layers of flavour stacked in every piece. Red bean paste forms the foundation – the earth. Next comes the champagne vegetable gelatine, which represents the sky. The bird and the moon shapes are made with lemon-flavoured sweet bean paste, and finally, the upper layer of chocolate is topped with cranberry, Japanese walnut and raisins.
The taste, Suzuki explains, is different depending on where you take your first bite.
Even the packaging has been carefully considered. Nagatoya commissioned the design from Japanese artist Reika Masuda, who paints in the Nihonga tradition using paper, mineral pigments and leaves.
Masuda and Suzuki met at an art trade show in Tokyo, where they floated the idea to collaborate.
“Suzuki showed me prototypes of the chocolates at the very first meeting,” Masuda tells SBS Food.
“I felt a story from it. So, I put a cockatoo and the moon as main characters in an imaginary world. People can imagine the bird would fly to the bright future – somewhere you’d like to go.”
The cockatoo is a nod to the artist’s time spent living in Sydney. “I love cockatoos so much, so I chose one for the main character of the box!”
According to Masuda, collaborating with a sweet maker was a bucket list item. “It was one of my dreams as an artist,” she says. “I’m so happy to collaborate with someone who works for other kinds of creativity.”
Just like the chocolates themselves, there’s more than meets the eye to the Fly Me to the Moon project. Sweets in Japan (wagashi sweets in particular) are symbols of “essential goodness,” and enshrine cultural significance for the Japanese people.
"I love cockatoos so much, so I chose one for the main character of the box!”
“The important thing is how we can make new things while keeping the technology and taste that we inherited,” says Suzuki. “There are lots of earthquake disasters, people who lost their homeland in Aizuwakamatsu [are] many. Though wagashi, we would like to be a bridge of memories and encounters of various people.”
As the Nagatoya website says, “the basis of sweets is to eat and become a smile. Do not forget that.” We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.
Check out Nagatoya’s website and order your Fly Me to the Moon chocolates today. All orders will be shipped after February 7.
Feel like trying your own Japanese desserts? Peruse our collection here.
Lead image from Instagram (takashimaya_gift).