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Japanese Sweets: Sampling something different

Japanese sweets, or wagashi, are traditional Japanese confections that are often served with tea, especially the types of mochi, anko and fruits. Japanese sweets are typically made using plant-based ingredients such as bean paste. In Japan, the original word for Japanese sweets was kashi, which referred to fruits and nuts. With the increasing sugar trade between China and Japan, sugar became a common household ingredient by the end of the Muromachi Period. Influenced by the introduction of tea, China’s confectionary and dim sum, the creation of wagashi took off during the Edo Period of Japan. Let’s take a closer look at a select range of Japanese sweets and what makes wagashi so popular.

Characteristics of confectionary

Typically, Japanese sweets, more specifically wagashi, take a lot of work to make. Known for its delicateness and variety in appearance, these Japanese sweets are usually named after poetry, historical events and or natural scenery that reflects the delicate culture of Japan. Wagashi can be used as a great gift during festivals and can also be a daily treat for visiting guests in the household. Different places in Japan have different wagashi that are unique in flavour as their local speciality. Because of this, Japanese people tend to take these Japanese sweets home after personal or business trips. 
Most Japanese people believe that the artistic characteristics of wagashi represent both a sense of the season the wagashi was made and a humble piece of Japanese culture with some wagashi only being available to buy regionally or seasonally. Japanese sweets are made in a wide variety of shapes and consistencies with a diverse range of ingredients and preparation methods, so let’s explore some of Japan’s most popular sweet treat choices.

Popular choices

There are many different types of wagashi to choose from, the list is endless. Some of the most popular Japanese sweets, however, include; manju, yokan, ohagi, chimaki, dorayaki, daifuku, kushi-dango, taiyaki, kashiwa-mochi, zenzai and oshiruko (wagashi ‘soups’) and the dried form known as hi-gashi, such as senbei, kompeito and okoshi.
Momiji Manju
Momiji Manju are traditional Japanese sweets that originate from Hiroshima. The Japanese word momiji means ‘autumn leaf’ and as Hiroshima is famous for maple trees, manju are shaped like these iconic leaves. These treats are made using castella cake that is filled with a sweet red bean paste, one of the most popular fillings for wagashi.
Ichigo Daifuku
Ichigo Daifuku are very famous Japanese sweets and are originally from Osaka, a prefecture also famous for savoury snacks like takoyaki and okonomiyaki. Ichigo Daifuku are made of mochi, sweet red bean paste and a strawberry. This fruity Japanese snack is perfect for spring and summer and you can find it throughout all prefectures in Japan.
Namagashi are traditional Japanese sweets that are most often associated with wagashi. They are made of rice flour and a sweet bean paste filling and are delicately shaped by hand to reflect the season. Namagashi are served at tea ceremonies to compliment the bitter taste of tea.
Oshiruko and Zenzai take a slightly different form to most Japanese sweets. Oshiruko and Zenzai are forms of sweet porridge made using azuki beans that have been boiled, crushed and served in a bowl with mochi. There are many different styles of Oshiruko and Zenzai where the beans are served with other Japanese sweets, such as rice flour dumplings. The difference in these desserts is that Zenzai is made from a condensed paste and is less watery than Oshiruko, with a consistency more like jam or marmalade.
Dango are chewy, small, steamed dumplings made from rice flour. These Japanese sweets are typically served skewered with around three or four dumplings to a stick. The dango are then topped with a sweet sauce or bean paste. The dumplings are also added into other desserts like anmitsu and oshiruko. The many different varieties of dango are usually named after the various seasonings that are served on or with the dumplings.
At Atelier Japan, we understand the importance of having good quality authentic Japanese tea. Which is why we stock a bespoke collection of matcha, tea and tableware to make your tea drinking experience as unique as possible. Browse our collections and take your tea drinking to new heights.
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Matcha: A history in the making

Matcha tea is something that is cropping up more and more in Western society, whether it’s replacing coffee or flavouring your ice cream, this fine green powder is more popular now than ever. Dating back thousands of years to a time when dynasties ruled China and Shogun clans ruled Japan, taking a trip back to where it all started lets us see how far the mighty matcha has come.

The origins

The origins of matcha can be traced all the way back to the Tang Dynasty in China which spanned the 5th-10th century. During this time, the Tang Dynasty used to steam tea leaves to form into bricks to make their tea harvests easier to transport and trade. These ‘tea bricks’ were individually prepared by roasting and pulverising the leaves before mixing the resulting tea powder with water and salt.
As time progressed and China shifted into the Song Dynasty from the 10th-13th century, it was largely credited for making this form of matcha tea preparation popular. A Japanese Buddhist Monk, who spent most of his life studying Buddhism in China, moved to Japan in 1191, bringing with him the matcha tea seeds as well as the Zen Buddhist methods of preparing traditional powdered green tea. These tea seeds that had been brought back from China were largely considered to create the highest quality tea leaves in the whole of Japan.
These matcha seeds were then planted on the temple grounds in Kyoto, the home of the Kamakura Shogun. During the period of the Kamakura Shogun, matcha was only produced in extremely limited quantities, giving it its auspicious and luxury status. Soon after the Japanese Monk’s return to Japan, Zen Buddhists developed new methods for cultivating the green tea plant. Tencha was developed by growing the green tea plant under shaded conditions, a process largely credited for maximising its health benefits.

The production

The production of matcha is quite a delicate and gentle process. It is made from shade-grown tea leaves that are used to make gyokuro. The preparation of matcha starts several weeks before harvest, where the tea bushes are covered to prevent direct sunlight. This slows down the growth until it is time to hand-pick only the finest tea buds. After harvesting, the leaves are rolled up before drying for the production sencha. However, lying the leaves out flat will allow them to somewhat crumble, known as tencha, which is de-vined, de-stemmed and stone-ground to produce a fine, bright green powder known as matcha. The grinding of the leaves is a slow process as the mills must not become warm and release the aroma of the leaves. The flavours of this tea is dominated by the amino acids, with the highest grades of matcha having more intense sweetness and deeper flavour than the standard or coarser grades of tea harvested later in the year. 

The rituals

Matcha is now highly associated with traditional Japanese tea ceremonies, but it was not until the 1500s that a Zen student brought together aspects of the tea ceremony into a more formalized ritual that included the cultivation, consumption and ceremony of matcha. Today, the traditional Japanese tea ceremony centres on the preparation, serving and drinking of matcha as a hot drink, embodying a meditative spiritual style.
Blends of matcha are often given poetic names known as chamei either by the producing plantation, shop or creator of the blend or by the grandmaster of a particular tea tradition. When a blend is named by the grandmaster of a tea ceremony, the tea becomes known as the master’s konomi. There are 3 main categories that this tea can be classified within. Ceremonial grade, the highest quality used mainly in tea ceremonies and Buddhist temples, Premium grade, high-quality matcha green tea that contains the full nutritional content, and Culinary grade, which is suitable mainly for cooking purposes due to its bitter taste.
At Atelier Japan, our collection features traditional matcha and Japanese tea from Marukyu-Koyamaen, expert makers that have been cultivating and manufacturing tea in the village of Uji and Ogura in Kyoto since the late 1600s. Over the last 400 years, Koyamaen have devoted themselves to producing the highest quality tea generation after generation. Browse Atelier Japan to discover their award-winning range of matcha and tea.
           Selected Matcha Green Tea by The Ura Senke SHOKANOMUKASHI          

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Kyudo: Mastering the art of martial art archery

Kyudo is the ancient old Japanese practice of martial art archery. Originating in the samurai class of feudal Japan, Kyudo is practised by thousands of people worldwide and as of 2005, the International Kyudo Federation had 132,760 graded members. The beginning of this ancient art is pre-historic and can be traced back as early as the Yayoi period, 500 BC – 300 AD. Let’s take a look at this unique skill and how it has evolved to become so popular today.

Iconic history

Kyudo is believed to date back to the mythical Emperor Kimmu, whose image was always depicted holding a long-bow as early as 660 BC. At this time, Chinese import court rituals involved archery, and skill in kyudo, with ceremonial archery skills being a requirement of a fine gentleman. Around 500 years later, the first kyudo school was established by Henmi Kiyomitsi and taught students the Henmi-ryû, Henmi style of shooting. By the Genpei War in 1180, there was an increased demand for skilled warriors as the bow was viewed as a more noble and traditional warrior weapon. During the 15th and 16th centuries, civil wars throughout Japan contributed to the refinement of shooting techniques and the appearance of new branches of kyudo. Schools began to teach different types of kyudo, most of which have lasted to this day. Today, the art of archery has evolved into a mentally, physically, and spiritually disciplined art form.

A lesson in kyudo language

There are many different names and phrases for the different stages of kyudo from how an arrow is moved to the levels of skill and proficiency. The novice practices the 8 phases of shooting before moving on to a more advanced training stage, these 8 phases all have an individual name that represents the action, these being;

  • Ashibumi, or positioning,
  • Dozukuri, or correcting the posture,
  • Yugamae, or readying the bow,
  • Uchiokoshi, or raising the bow,
  • Hikiwake, or drawing the bow,
  • Kai, or completing and holding the draw,
  • Hanare, or releasing the arrow,
  • Yudaoshi, or lowering the bow.

Shooting the arrow

Although kyudo is a form of archery, judgement is placed more on how the Shagyo, the process of shooting, is carried out rather than whether the target is hit or missed. A good Sha, shooting, comes from good posture. When practising kyudo, you must stand with your back straight, pull your shoulders back to keep perfect balance and focus your energy on the Tanden, your lower abdomen. As a kyudo shooter, you must turn your attention to the limit on the release of the arrow, if executed correctly you will secure an accurate hit. After releasing the arrow, many shooters choose to take time to reflect on their shot, its success and their process of shooting. This process of reflection is a large part of the arts discipline and also the reason why this art is so deeply appreciated by many people.

Attitudes of kyudo

The serving purpose of present-day kyudo is to enjoy and enrich our daily life. For students, it is not only a way to train the body but it is also a form of training the mind. For others, it is a way to keep fit and acquire high spirituality at the same time. Despite the fact that the way of kyudo has changed throughout history, it has remained an integral part of Japan and cultures across the rest of the globe, finding its place in the modern world.
Kyudo is considered a sport in many respects as the art features opponents with which you compete, but not to fight against. There is always victory and defeat, but competing is not the point of the art and all opponent must be shown respect. If you don’t act sportsmanly and become preoccupied by the competition, you are seen to be abusing the spirit of martial art archery.
At Atelier Japan, our makers have stood the test of time, crafting authentic Japanese products for you to enjoy in your home. Our makers have taken care and time to create authentic Japanese fans, pottery, tea and silverware from authentic materials for you to enjoy. Browse the Atelier Japan website to discover our unique collections for yourself.

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Bento Boxes: A culinary art form

When you think about Japanese food, you’ll probably think of sushi, or perhaps a steaming bowl of ramen. But if you want to know what most Japanese people actually eat for lunch most days, then you have to consider bento boxes. Let’s take a look at what bento boxes are used for, how they’re made and how they came to be.

What are bento boxes?

Bento boxes are single-portioned boxed meals that are usually composed of staple carbs such as rice or noodles, meat or fish and an assortment of pickled or cooked vegetables. Bento boxes come in a range of styles ranging from mass-produced disposables to hand-crafted lacquerware. Bento boxes are readily available in many places throughout Japan, including convenience stores, bento shops, railway stations, and department stores. However, it’s not unusual for people to spend time and energy carefully crafting a lunch box for their spouse, child, or themselves. 
Bento boxes are often arranged and styled to reference characters, people, animals, buildings, monuments, flowers and plants, each having their own unique style and aesthetic. Contests are often held where bento arrangers compete for the most aesthetically pleasing arrangements. You can find many depictions of bento boxes all across the world, with somewhat comparable forms of boxed lunches in Asian countries including the Philippines, Korea, Taiwan and India. Hawaiian culture has also adopted localized versions of bento boxes, featuring local tastes after over a century of Japanese influence in the islands.

History of the bento

The word bento was not readily used during the early days of the lunchbox’s conception. During the Kamakura Period around 1185, the term used was actually hoshi-ii or dried metal. It would consist of only dried rice, without any packaging that could be eaten right away or boiled in water. It wasn’t until 1568, during the Azuchi-Momoyama period, that wooden lacquered bento boxes were produced to create the true bento that we know today. During the Edo Period from 1603-1867, bento boxes became an everyday meal for the people of Japan, with the contents and serving style depending drastically on social class and occupation. 
Travellers and sightseers would often carry koshibento, a type of waist bento which often included rice balls wrapped in bamboo leaves. For special events such as hanami, flower viewing parties, large, layered bento boxes were prepared to celebrate the occasion. By the twentieth century, aluminium began to be used in the preparation of bento boxes, which paved the way for the microwaveable konbini bento, convenience store bento, ekiben, train station bento, and hokaben, take-out bento.

Making of the box

Before the introduction of modern materials, bento boxes were hand-carved from wood. They were lacquered and designed by master craftsmen and the more lavish the box, the more expensive it was to purchase. Nowadays, most of the world’s boxes are manufactured in the Ishikawa Prefecture of Japan. Special moulds are used to produce high-quantities of these popular lunch containers, and original designs are fitted to each one. Presses are used to create and fix dividers and lids and then the raw plastic is coloured using a specialised paint gun. Screen-printing is used for more intricate patterns and illustration as stencils allow for flat or round boxes and sharp edges to be beautifully embossed. These bento boxes are then hand-packed and shipped all across the world, making lunch convenient and fun for all.
When it comes to making the food for bento boxes, there are very specific characteristics that need to be adhered to. The creation of bento boxes, whether it be mass-produced or homemade, is relatively the same thanks to the healthy and wholesome ingredients used. With a sectioned container as the base, there are four types of foods that should be included; carbs, protein, vegetables and fruits, with carbs being the greatest proportion, and fruits and vegetables being the least. A variety of textures and flavours are key to the production of bento boxes, with each bite being its own unique experience. 
At Atelier Japan, our makers only use the finest traditional craft techniques. Our makers have stood the test of time and have prevailed among huge global disturbances, remaining unwilling to go backwards. Explore the many Atelier Japan collections to explore the products that our makers have taken care and time to craft for you to enjoy.