A Few Kyoto Sweets – Kasagi-Ya & Kagizen Yoshifusa
Kyoto might be most famous for kaiseki in culinary circles but the diminutive wagashi and namagashi, Japanese confections, might best tell the story of the entire city, rather than just the privileged upper classes. The candies themselves take on the same symbolic importance as any dish from a kaiseki meal – color and shape make reference to history, season, and legend1 – living poetry. Their quality ranges from fresh hand-made (“nama” translates to raw) to industrial production, the latter seemingly more prevalent in the simulacras2 of Kyoto.3 It is this mix of old and new, estuaries of old traditions and new practicalities that seem to define the character of the city.
Both Kasagi-Ya and Kagizen Yoshifusa were featured in Diane Durston’s Old Kyoto: The Updated Guide to Traditional Shops, Restaurants, and Inns. They were both identified as shops that preserve tradition while serving high-quality desserts. The book is a great introduction to Kyoto for any non-resident while still preserving the mystery of the city. In an effort to help sales of the book, and future editions, I will not print addresses in this post – the book is worth buying.
Amid the near-Disneyfied neighborhoods of East Kyoto (they are historically preserved but it’s a strange sight), Kasagi-Ya quietly sits at the base of the stairs to Sonnenzaka, with nary a hint as to what lies inside. It is a time machine with five small tables or so that have been around since 1914 – exuding warmth and hospitality – it’s easy to imagine pilgrims stopping in for a quick warm cup of tea. The modern-day traveler, generally safe from the elements, still needs a break from the hoards of tour groups and souvenir shops in the neighborhood.
The shaved ice with green tea syrup was a near-automatic decision due to the humidity of the late September afternoon. There was no magic imbued in this cup, no matter how authentic the intentions were, but it served its purpose – a cool treat.
The o-hagi (rice and azuki beans), on the other hand, were revelatory – made to order and served warm – their freshness trumped all of the o-hagi eaten to date on the trip.4 It is interesting how one with limited experience knows the difference between fresh and even a day or two old. They were on the sweeter side but the texture and its slight chewiness was compelling. Your visit to Kyoto will take you though this neighborhood – mark Kasagi-Ya as a necessary stop to experience Old Kyoto.
Kagizen Yoshifusa was billed as one of the last remaining o-kashi-ya (Japanese sweet shop) in Kyoto that still produced their own sweets daily, instead of pre-boxed and wrapped. Changes have apparently been afoot. The shop was now bifurcated – a small counter of wagashi in front, amongst old cabinetry and ceramics, and an ultra-chic and modern cafe, reminiscent of any international hotel, in back. There was such a discrepancy between descriptions that I assumed this was a failed mission – directions being what they are (difficult at times) – for this was nothing traditional about the setting in back. But the door pictures matched up and, in Japan, that is often one’s best guide.5
The Kuzukiri came with two bowls – one with (fresh made) translucent arrowroot noodles sitting in ice water; the other “brown sweet syrup” (as the English menu called it.) It was the ultimate in minimalism and elegance; hitting a Zen-like high reminiscent of the best sushi of the trip. More amazing, the noodles had little taste but their texture was pitch perfect as they slid down your throat The brown sweet syrup had a complex taste redolent of maple syrup but it was less viscous, made with brown sugar. The subtlety of flavor, from so basic of ingredients, was astounding.
The “soft red-beans jelly” (verbatim from the menu) was molded in a bamboo; one unwrapped it, tapped it out, and sliced it with the pick provided. It could not reach the highs of the kuzukiri but its freshness stood out against the plethora of bean-based sweets eaten to date in Japan. The texture and flavor sung where other desserts were more muted.
While the setting was not the romanticized vision of a traditional tea house, the desserts were of a high caliber. The modern cafe in back, obviously a more recent addition, and costly as that, makes one worry a little less for quality desserts in Kyoto. There is obviously a market for higher quality sweets and Kagizen Yoshifusa is highly recommended for such desires.
2 – Kyoto is very interesting when considered in the context of Baudrillard’s simulcra. The city has a number of neighborhoods that have been restored. The effect is surreal at best – the restoration is so successful that the districts could be mistaken for Disney-fied copies of the original. And then there are the merchants – most of whom are selling goods that were likely not made at their shop, or even in the city itself! The entire affair is mediated by an overly commercial, and blatant, tourist industry. It is not unlike going to Las Vegas to see Paris – but it *is* Kyoto – fascinating!
3 – I don’t intend for this to be a value judgement, although it may read that way. The foodie in me wants everything to be tasty first, with authenticity a secondary concern. The tourist in me wants authenticity. And the entrepreneur in me realizes that, without money, and often because of it, the shops and any notion of tradition would cease to exist anyways.
4 – Later that day, the mochi at Hyotei, a single piece served at the end of the meal, was just as amazing.
5 – Again, if you’re not familiar with kanji, there is nothing more useful for finding a Japanese restaurant than a picture of the door.