Learning to make local food is always a highlight for me when I travel. In Korea, I learned how to make dukbokki and not only ended up with a heap of delicious food, but with the satisfaction that I had learned about new ingredients and how to use them.
So when my friend came to visit me, we figured that trying some traditional Japanese food would be a great idea. The question was: sweet, or savory?
…Actually, I lied. That wasn’t a question at all. We both have huge sweet tooths.
If you google “traditional Japanese sweets Kyoto”, you’ll find a couple of places in town that offer lessons. The one that I opted to go with this time was with a shop called Kanshudo. This traditional sweets (or, wagashi 和菓子） shop can be found south of Kiyomizu-Gojo station on the Keihan line, on the east side of the river. The reservation gives you an hour and fifteen minute class where you make four different kinds of sweets (well, five if you want to get technical), one of which you get to eat on-site with a cup of green tea. The rest you get to take home. The total cost of this is around 2,160 yen per person.
We opted for the three o’clock lesson, and upon arriving discovered that there are actually two branches of Kanshudo on the same street! The main branch is visible as soon as you reach the corner of Kawabata and Shoumen dori, but this is not where you’ll be taking the class. For those of you who don’t speak the local lingo (or are not keen on bothering the staff), there should be a sign in Japanese and English outside the shop telling you to head down Shoumen street a couple hundred meters. Follow the directions and the branch you want should be on the left-hand side of the street.
Once there, pay for your lesson and get an apron in return. Put that on and, if you want to use your phone or camera during the lesson, slip it into a pocket and wait to be directed…somewhere.
We were herded up to the second floor, and there were quite a few of us milling around! All of us were split into two groups and sent into different rooms, where a teacher told us where to sit. My friend and I were impressed to see that they had prepared explanation sheets of what we were making that day and the significance of each sweet, and it was not only in Japanese but English and Chinese as well. (There may be other languages available, so ask when you make a reservation if you need it!)
Before we could sit, though, we were directed to wash our hands. From this point until you’re told otherwise, do not pull out your phone for pictures or you will get yelled at and told to wash your hands again. If nothing else, ask first! We washed our hands and settled onto a bench, waiting for everyone to file in.
I regret to say that I didn’t catch our teacher’s name, but he was a middle-aged gentleman with a darker complexion, big hands, and a dry sense of humor. He spoke, for the most part, only Japanese, although he occasionally spoke English words to myself and my friend.
“Okay, before we begin, I have something to say,” he said as we all looked at him expectantly. “Take a moment and feel your friend or partner’s hands.”
We all blinked, but did as directed.
“Who’s got warm hands? Raise your hand if you do.”
A few of us did.
“I regret to say there’s no way you’ll be good at making wagashi,” he informed us briskly. “One key of wagashi is to have cool, dry hands. If you easily get warm or sweaty hands, well, you’ll get that all over your wagashi, and nobody wants to consume that, right? So if you’ve got those kind of hands, we kindly request you keep your sweat-covered wagashi to yourself and don’t inflict that on your friends or family.”
A few people chuckled, and we got right into the lesson.
I said before that we technically made five sweets, not the advertised four, because we also made decorative sweets to put in our wagashi box. The class was fast-paced, and we had to scurry at points to keep up with the teacher’s instructions. That’s not to say that we didn’t understand what he wanted us to do; it was just that sometimes, well, our skills were lacking.
“Right,” the teacher said, as we made a biwa wagashi. “Now that you’ve finished pinching things together, look for the greenest part of the wagashi.”
The five of us at my table stared at our wagashi in confusion. “Green part?” one guy said. “Mine’s all orange.”
“I think there’s one area that’s a little yellow?” a second guy said, holding his up to the light.
“Were we supposed to do something else and we missed it?” I asked.
No time to dwell; we had to find the greenest part of our wagashi and create a “stem” to complete the image of our biwa looking like a freshly picked fruit. Then, it was on to the next stage.
We finished in plenty of time to have our cup of green tea, along with the last sweet we made that day. Naturally, it was the best sweet any of us made, so a few of us were reluctant to down it. At this point, our teacher called out, “If you want to take pictures, go ahead and take as many as you want!”
The other people at our table were kind enough to take pictures of us with our sweets, and we returned the favor. Then, satisfied we had captured the moment, we all settled in and enjoyed the tea and sweet.
As we all wrapped up, the teacher began to direct us on how to assemble our take-home boxes of sweets and on where to return the aprons. “Ladies and gentlemen, please ensure you’ve emptied the pockets of your apron,” he said. “Because if we discover any Rolexes or Tiffany brand goodies in there, well, finders keepers.”
We thanked him, checked our pockets, returned the aprons, and were soon out on the street with a small bag of goodies we had made ourselves.
If you want to see what’s behind the making of traditional sweets in Japan, I highly encourage you to take a class like this one. It’s fun, it doesn’t require any ovens or fire (so it’s safe for kids), and you get to take sweets home or to your hotel which will be good for several days after.
That said, this is another situation where you should be prepared to speak Japanese or have a Japanese-speaking friend along with you. The instructions are pretty straightforward for most of the sweet-making if you watch the teacher, but the nuances can get lost while you’re attempting to find the greener parts of your wagashi.
Have you taken a wagashi class? How about a cooking class in general? What were your experiences?