Updated: Jun 19
Karakara-sembei – a fortune cookie-like sweet with a miniature folk toy inside – Tsuruoka’s traditional local confectionery
Tsuruoka, the castle town with 400 years of history, boasts local traditional confectioneries that have been passed down from ancient times. These include okitsunehan or kitsunemen (a treat made of black sugar and shaped like the face of a fox), hinagashi (unbaked sweets with sweetened bean paste inside; shaped mainly like food from the seas, fruits or vegetables from fields and mountains) and kirisansho (a kind of sweet made from glutinous rice and powdered Japanese pepper sansho) among others. We visited Mr. Yoshikazu Umezu, a tenth-generation master of Umezu Confectionery Shop that has been making karakara-sembei longer than any other confectionery shop in Tsuruoka.
The Umezu Confectionery Shop was established during the Genroku era (1688-1704) of the Edo Period (1604-1867). The production of dagashi (literally translated as cheap sweets), which includes karakara-sembei, is said to have begun during the Edo Period. As opposed to high-class confectioneries made from white sugar, which were allowed only for samurai, the dagashi made mainly from glutinous starch syrup and black sugar was made for ordinary townspeople. It bears an image as an inexpensive confectionery with a plain flavor.
The basic of the sweetness of dagashi is said to correspond to the sweetness of dried persimmons. (Persimmons are a popular autumn fruit in Tsuruoka.) It is sweeter than ordinary fruits, but less sweet than white sugar. It may be due to such sweetness behind the dagashi that we feel a sense of nostalgia or relief from it.
The traditional dagashi, that was once widespread across Japan, mostly disappeared after the war. Yet, some shops in the castle towns of the Tohoku region (the northeast part of Japan), like Tsuruoka, are still making dagashi, using the old-style production techniques.
The Umezu Confectionery Shop stands in obscurity along a back alley a little way down from a main street of central Tsuruoka. The cozy shop is about 1.8m2 in size and wooden-framed, glazed showcases are instantly noticeable the moment the rumbling sliding door is opened. The showcases are crammed with Japanese sweets shaped by pounding the ingredients into molds such as kitsunemen that is indispensable to Tsuruoka’s confectionery; Karakara-sembei, plain-tasting adzuki paste confectionery; bolos, a mint-flavored confectionery; and aruheito (hard candies), among others.
The karakara-sembei is one of the popular dagashi in Tsuruoka that have been passed down since the Edo Period. They were sold in the past as a lucky charm during the New Year’s holidays. The initial shape of the karakara-sembei before baking was round. A confectioner thought it would be unique and different if the raw, round karakara-sembei was folded from three directions and a lead miniature soldier or a tiny wooden daikoku-sama (the god of food and wealth) was put into the confectionery before baking. This is believed to be the beginning of the karakara-sembei. Mr. Umezu, the owner of the shop, willingly showed us the valuable soldier and “Daikoku-sama.” We found these miniature toys heavier than they looked when actually put on our palm. “Since lead is harmful to our health, these are not put into the sweets now. But, we used to put these toys into the karakara-sembei at that time,” explained Mr. Umezu.
The current karakara-sembei got its name after Mr. Hitoshi Saito, a food critic from Yamagata city, who came to Tsuruoka when Mr. Umezu was a child and named the confectionery karakara-sembei.
Today, karakara-sembei is sold in a plastic bag throughout the year, but in the old times, when plastic bags were not available, it is said that this sweet was a seasonal treat only sold from autumn through winter. Supposedly, in the old days, children played outside making things out of dirt for fun, and with their grimy hands, they grabbed the karakara-sembei and shook it, which produced the karakara sound. Karakara is a Japanese expression of such clattering sounds that a lightweight object inside a container makes when shaken. The children delightedly tried to guess what was contained inside the karakara-sembei by shaking it to get what they really wanted. Today, as the picture shows, an embroidered miniature palace ball, ohajiki (coin-shaped colored glass) or a miniature folk bell, among others things, are found inside.
Baking molds that have been valued over the generations
The karakara-sembei at the Umezu Confectionery Shop is made from flour and sugar and each of the confectioneries is hand-made with the old techniques.
Mr. Umezu kindly showed us the baking tools. Those are quite heavy cast metals that have been valued over the generations, and they might well be called “family treasures.” In making the karakara-sembei, the seven baking tools are set on a gas range nowadays, whereas charcoal was used in the old days. The thin doughs bake quickly, so while they are still hot and soft, a miniature toy is put inside the dough and wrapped from three directions. Finally, a small piece of Japanese paper is instantly sealed by hand to form the part that joins the dough from the three directions. Made available only at this place, a hand-made flavor that makes us feel nostalgic and relieved has been passed down over the generations.
“There were 60 confectionery shops in the old days. There were some wholesale stores, too. The demand used to be so high,” said Mr. Umezu. In Tsuruoka, there is a “Tsuruoka Confectionery Cooperative Association” that has been run since the Meiji Period (1868-1912), although, at present, no new member is likely to join the association. Far from it, some members are forced to close down the shop because they have no one to take over their businesses. Despite the dwindling number of confectionery shops, Mr. Yoshihiro Umezu, a son of Yoshikazu, now works with his father as a successor at the Umezu Confectionery Shop. Yoshikazu, the tenth-generation confectioner, worked as an apprentice at another shop in town when he was young. By contrast, his son worked at an electronic business until he turned to 30 years of age. “I let my son do what he wanted to do until 30,” his father told us with a smile.
In spring, they make hinagashi. Shochugashi (unbaked sweets made from glutinous rice, shaped with molds, and a distilled spirit (shochu) mixed with sugar is put inside) is made in summer. Sagegashi, a dangling confectionery used when we dangle it at a family Buddhist altar is made during obon (a festival of souls in mid-August; a variety of foods are offered to the spirits of the ancestors). And kirisansho (sweets made from glutinous rice and powdered Japanese pepper sansho) is made in winter.
In the corner of the shop, we found some wooden molds for making rakugan (dry sweets made with starch and sugar) and asked the owner to show them to us. Mr. Umezu then brought an armful of wooden molds from inside the shop. The wooden molds are the valuable properties of any confectionery shop, but those are not used so often today, according to the confectioner.
Confectionery connects people
We asked, “Who do you want to eat your confectionery?” The answer from Mr. Yoshikazu Umezu was following: “The customers these days are all elderly. Their parents took them to my shop when they were kids. Today, they come to our shop with a nostalgic feeling. It might be difficult for other people of different ages to come. So, once a year, we participate in the ‘Tsuruoka Confectionery Festival’ which is organized by the Tsuruoka Confectionery Cooperative Association. We want people to enjoy the flavor and tradition of local confectionery which makes them feel nostalgic and relieved. We are hoping our confectionery connects people.” From his calm tone of voice, we could not help but feel his strong determination, evident also in his gentle eyes, to succeed with a time-honored traditional taste that has been passed down through the generations.