Unbaked confectionery to be displayed for Hina Dolls Festival.
The 3rd April falls on Hina Dolls Festival in central Tsuruoka. Unlike the adjacent areas of the city, the Festival in downtown is celebrated mostly based on the old calendar. Time-honored hina dolls are showcased everywhere under a title of Hinda Kaido (Hina dolls street), which is crowded with citizens and tourists alike. The essential that accompanies the hina dolls is hinagashi, the Tsuruoka’s unique, adorable, unbaked confectionery made of sweetened bean paste. We visited a confectionery artisan in town for an interview.
Since there are households in the city that celebrate the festival based on either the old calendar or the Western calendar (3rd March), there are two peaks of the hinagashi making, which are the 3rd of March and the 3rd of April, according to the artisan. We visited Tsuruya, a confectionery shop on the 4th March when one the peaks of the business had passed.
The owner of the shop is Mr. Nobuo Togashi, the 83-year-old devoted artisan. He has been engaged in the confectionery production since 1953. Mr Togashi who cannot drink at all loves sweets. His determination to become a confectioner is seen as an extension of his avocation, smiled the artisan with an incomparable 60-year-experience. Mr. Togashi’s long-standing, honed techniques were recognized by the city and he received an accolade of the Tsuruoka Preeminent Artisanship Award in 2012.
Tsuruoka’s hinagashi – past and present
Tsuruoka’s hinagashi is a traditional unbaked confectionery (namagashi) that originates from Kyoto culture which was transported by Kitamaebune (northern-bound ships for coastal trade). In past days, higashi (dry confectionery) and amezaiku (cand craft artistry) which can be preserved longer were a mainstream. In around 1952-1953, however, the unbaked confectionery that bears good taste started to be made. Following that trend ever since, Mr. Togashi has been selling the unbaked confectionery at the shop while the dry confectionery is made only for display.
The main ingredients for the unbaked confectionery are a white bean paste that is used for an exterior of the confectionery and an adzuki paste that is used for an inner side of the confectionery. Mr. Togashi’s obsession with the unbaked confectionery is represented in a holistic balance of the assortment and a color of the namagashi. The lustrous confectionery assorted on the four-legged tray is somewhat humorous and they looked like colorful toys.
What we need to preserve and what we need to change
The hinagashi is made to reflect minaly special local products in Tsuruoka’s four seasons. Thanks to the vast plain, the mountains and the sea, Tsuruoka is blessed with bountiful local raw materials, which can be motifs of the various hinagashi. One of the highlighted motifs is heirloom crops that have been enjoyed locally since the ancient times such as small, round-shaped Minden eggplants that are prepared for tsukemono (Japanese pickles) and plump Tonojima cucumbers that have a patchy pattern of green and yellow. These vegetables are gaining popularity and are Mr. Togashi’s standard hinagashi.
“Young people work during the day, so, basically, it is our job to display hina dolls, which is enjoyable. Mostly, those who put the dolls on display come to buy the hinagashi, so most of our customers are elderly,” says Mrs. Togashi who is in charge of selling at the shop.
The hinagashi has long been passed down yet the motifs have been changed in line with the times such as cherries and dadachamame beans, which have been recently added to Mr. Togashi’s repertoire. This year, a slice of watermelon has been added. When he makes a new hinagashi, he examines the real thing.
“I am particular about peels (of the watermelon), too,” said Mr. Togashi who gently showed us the bottom of the hinagashi that was placed nearby. The peel part of the watermelon hinagashi was a striped pattern of yellow-green and dark green. Besides, a taste of the hinagashi has been changed since last year. For instance, as for strawberries, persimmons, tangerines and apples, a bean paste that is flavored with a respective fruit’s syrup is inventively used, and as for chestnuts, a chestnut paste is used, in addition to using sea lettuce for clams. The reason behind this change is that customers like the taste of the real things that intrinsically exist in the fruits and vegetables.
The hinagashi production process
Mr. Togashi owns 60-year-old wooden molds that have been used since the start of his business. The wooden molds have firm but smooth touch on surface. Some of the molds are sensitively carved such scales of red sea breams. According to the ardent confectioner, there used to be some molders in Tsuruoka and he had his hinagashi utensil produced by them. In the past, because the unbaked confectionery such as red sea breams, cranes and turtles were presented to the guests as a gift in wedding receptions, a number of wooden molds were in high demand. Today, however, such a practice has disappeared and the wooden molds are used only for the hinagashi now.
Some of the hinagashi such as red sea breams and slices of fish are molded, but in most cases, Mr. Togashi kneads and carves by himself, occasionally using a pair of scissors.
When we interview, we found Mr. Togashi to be with a gentle atmosphere. However, the moment he entered into this workroom, his soft face switched to the one of an experienced artisan, which was impressive. Around this time of the year, Mr. Togashi enjoys his work as he is able to make various kinds of hinagashi. In particular, he likes akebi (chocolate vine or five leaf akebia) as he is fond of a color and a shape of the mountain fruit.
Please enjoy the artisanal honed techniques, creators’ thoughtfulness for customers and playfulness through the hinagashi.