Popular tastes bailing out a “nation” in a financial crisis
Himeji City, the land of Kuroda kanbee, an outstanding 16th-century samurai strategist who never lost a battle in the age of warring provincial lords, boasts Himeji Castle—the first UNESCO-designated World Heritage site in Japan as well as one of Japan’s national treasures—which is a popular destination for tourists and history lovers from overseas and Japan. In addition to this beautiful internationally known castle nicknamed the White Heron Castle, it is worth remembering that the region of Himeji and its adjacent Seiban is a land of a variety of indigenous industries that have been cherished and nursed by history and tradition and that have engaged in day-and-night endeavors to capture the hearts and needs of a fast-changing world. Among these industries is the making of Himeji confectionery. The popularity of the delicate tastes that once contributed to bailing the Himeji “nation” out of a financial crisis are still preserved among confectionery fans of Japan.
Development with the tea ceremony
The Japanese imperial court used to dispatch envoys to China from the 7th to 9th centuries to learn international circumstances and culture of the Asian Continent. Together with their study results, they brought back with them Chinese confectionery, their recipes, and their skills in making them. Confectionery artisans in Japan, who had been accustomed to making only simple confectionery, soon employed new knowledge of both Chinese and Japanese confectionery, developing new styles of confectionery that would suit Japanese taste buds.
Later, in the Kamakura period that began late in the 12th century, a new habit of drinking green tea was brought in from China. It was developed and refined among samurais here as a way of gracefully enjoying tea—the tea ceremony. Confectionery soon began to accompany it as a graceful complement. With confectionery, pursuit of delicate taste, seasonal flavors, and attractive shapes followed. It turned out to be the origin of today’s wagashi or Japanese confectionery.
Another development was the spread of the so-called Western confectionery. After commerce with Portugal and Spain started in the 16th century, castella (sponge cake), caramel, confetti, and other new confectionery using sugar and eggs were acquired. Their materials and recipes were quite revolutionary to the Japanese confectionery artisans of those days. The confectionery professionals again adapted them to Japanese tastes. Western confectionery soon spread to provincial capitals or castle towns of feudal lords and commercial centers all over Japan.
Confectionery saves a “nation” in financial crisis
The confectionery of Himeji came to be well known across Japan in the latter part of the Edo era (1603-1867). Thanks to the Sakai family, the hereditary lord of the Himeji domain or feudal nation, patronage was given to the tea ceremony and local culture enjoyed remarkable prosperity.
However, the financial situation of the Himeji domain deteriorated in the 19th century, as in many other feudal counterparts of Japan. The debts in Himeji amounted to the astronomical figure of 44 billion yen in today’s value. However, history found a hero in Kawai Sunno as a finance minister who at last paid off all the debts in 27 years.
Born into a hereditary minister family of the Himeji domain, Sunno was ordered in 1808 by the lord to save the “nation” from the disastrous financial crisis. He embarked on a full-fledged economic stimulus package by promoting local industries including agriculture, manufacturing, and commerce incorporating logistics. Besides opening a cotton exchange, he implemented incentive policies to call in such products as cotton, flour, colza oil, and sugar from other domains.
One home run that Sunno, an ardent lover of the tea ceremony, hit was the promotion of confectionery making. He dispatched samuraisand confectionery artisans to advanced confectionery regions such as Edo (the present Tokyo) and Kyoto. He also sent them to Dejima in Nagasaki, the only window to the West under the isolation policy in the Edo era. After learning innovative confectionery-making skills and recipes, they brought them back to their home country to produce new Himeji confectionery that came to enchant not only the Himeji people but confectionery fans all over Japan.
Himeji Confectionery Expo
Himeji confectionery traditionally comprised two main types. One was the semi-fresh, unbaked confectionery that accompanied the tea ceremony, and the other, confectionery fried in oil, whose skills in making were learned in Nagasaki. They became popular in the Edo era since both used high-quality materials gathered from various producing areas of Japan thanks to industry promotion incentives implemented by the able financial strategist Kawai Sunno. Among them are the brand confectionery today of Tamatsubaki, the naming of which was the idea of Sunno himself. In later years, new sweets were added to Himeji’s brand confectionary such as Kinuta, Sanzaemon, Sejuro Monaka, and Goza-soro-no Kaiten-yaki.
With brand confectionery, popular versions at low prices started to spread across many parts of Japan as Banshu Dagashi or popular Himeji confectionery. The confectionery industry of Himeji prospered. Even after the end of the feudal era, there stood a great number of popular confectionery shops in the market and shopping town of Senba Hontokuji Temple, until they were burned down by air strikes during World War II. They continued their business, however, after scattering to various areas of Himeji City after the war. A few preserved the family know-how inherited from their ancestors of generations ago. The name Banshu Dagashi stayed, although many of their rivals in other regions of Japan could not keep pace with the fast-changing times.
Diversification of lifestyle accelerated in post-war Japan. The confectionery industry was urged to address this new challenge. In 1952, the Association of Himeji Confectioners was established to improve the quality of Himeji confectionery and study ways to streamline their sales channels. The association actively took part in the Confectionery Expo or the national confectionery exhibition that has been held every few years. The industry-wide efforts led to a number of award winnings including from the honorary president of the Expo. In 2008, the Confectionery Expo was held in Himeji City, attracting nearly a million visitors.
Since many of Himeji’s confectioners are community-rooted, they are not necessarily fit for large-scale production or technological innovations. They are never competitive on the internationally stage. Moreover, amid the health-oriented diet style of Japanese consumers, confectioners also must meet their diversifying needs. Even under these circumstances, the confectionery makers of Himeji have been striving to develop their original tastes to captivate the acute sense of taste of the local community and win their steady support.
Here, let us focus upon Himeji karinto or fried confectionery that is today a favorite of many Japanese.
The dough is made from flour with sugar, water, yeast, salt, baking-soda, and so on. It is shaped into a bar. After being fried in vegetable oil, it is coated with syrup made from white or black sugar.
There are two main theories as to the origin of karinto. While one attributes it to China, the other ascribes it to Portugal. The China theory says karinto is made by frying dough of flour and rice powder in oil. There are confectionaries similar to karinto in today’s China. The Portugal theory comes from the Western Cooking Book compiled early in the 17th century that introduced similar confectionery, still made in today’s Portugal. Another theory says that karinto was a preserved food for soldiers in the age of warring feudal lords.
In Himeji, karinto came to be made when Kawai Sunno ordered his men to study skills of making European oil-fried confectionery and their recipes. The texture of karinto is rather firm since its dough is kneaded rather rigorously. At the start, karinto coated with high-quality sugar was loved by upper-class people including court aristocrats in Kyoto. Yet, with the use of more popular ingredients, it gradually spread to ordinary people as their daily confectionery. Some mix sesame, powdered green tea, or soybeans into the dough. Today, you can taste from high-grade expensive karinto to popular, reasonably priced ones. The confectionery industry of Himeji aims to explore new horizons of taste that will captivate confectionery lovers of Japan.