TORAYA KOBO - A Sweet Taste of History
Wagashi (和菓子 wa "Japanese" gashi "confectionery") is one of my favorite things! These traditional style Japanese sweets come in many different styles and flavors, and many are "accidentally" vegan, as the Western influences of dairy, gelatin, and heavily processed and sweetened candy came much later. TORAYA KOBO (1982) is a titan in the world of Wagashi and I visited their Shizuoka tea room to first class experience the flavors behind their centuries-long success!
Wagashi - beautiful inside and out
Japanese sweets, like many other Japanese dishes and cultural phenomenons are slowly taking over cafes and shops all over the world. From matcha lattes, flavored pocky's, limited editions KitKat's and mochi icecream - all regularly appear on my European friends' SNS feed, accompanied by # I LOVE JAPANESE FOOD. And sure, each of them are delicious options and perfectly suited for an international audience. Traditional Wagashi, on the other hand, has a much more refined, complex flavor and texture profile. Made from primarily plantbased ingredients, such as rice, azuki (sweet) beans, and kanten (agar-agar), flavors are more natural and balanced than artificial candies, and often higher in nutrition. I vividly remember visiting Japan together with my mom, at the age of 16. Due to the lack of Japanese language skills (or clues on where to eat for that matter..), we kept accidentally selecting sweet beans-filled bread at the konbini - even when we were hoping for something savory. After two weeks, (one would think you'd learn what not to choose..), we were both so traumatized, it took years before we finally learned to enjoy anko/azuki/an paste again. And although I believe mom might still not be completely recovered, I sure did make a 180° turn!
A delicious flavor is one thing, and for us Dutchies, often the only thing that counts (have you seen our food? "Erwtensoep", "stamppot"?! ; Google at your own risk). The art behind Wagashi entails much more. All five senses; Taste, Smell, Touch, Sight and Sound need to be stimulated with just one dish. And as if that wasn't enough of a challenge, flavors, ingredients, presentations and ways to eat also change depending on the season or special events. During spring time, many creations will include Sakura Cherry Blossoms, both as an ingredient as well as decoration; Whereas during Autumn, these change into Chestnuts and Autumn Leaves. Similarly, a juicy, refreshing mizu-yokan might be offered in the summer, but making place for a hot oshiruko during winter.
TORAYA - 400 years of history
Documents hinting at the presence of what is now TORAYA date back all the way to 1600. TORAYA has a detailed history overview on their English website, even showing pictures of confectionery they served to the empress during the Edo period! Surviving the great Kanto earthquake and WOII, they managed to gradually grow their presence in Japan and even overseas - introducing Japanese sweets to Paris and New York as early as 1980! They now has about 80 shops, boutiques and tearooms all over Japan, and I was lucky enough to visit their Gotemba tea room in Shizuoka.
The aesthetics are incredible. From the entrance, the bamboo park (for that real Kyoto feel) and of course a pond with koi fish. A beautiful location for a date, or to bring your Japan-visiting friends or relatives! The tea room itself has a separation between the order and register section, and the seating section, so you can really enjoy your visit in peace. Due to COVID-19 only 2 people were allowed into the order room at the same time, with masks and hand sanitizer required. With it being a tea room and all, you are recommended to have their signature green tea, to bring out the flavor of the sweets even more. The menu was in Japanese, but the friendly staff is very knowledge on ingredients and happy to help you out.
The Seating is available both in- and outside. This is in the gorgeous, highly Instagrammable indoor seating area with manga and magazines, as well as garden and pond views. Am I the only one imagining hours of peaceful reading, while being served some tea and sweets every now and then? #Goals
Wagashi Tea Time
せかっくだから、(sekkaku dakara) must be one of my favorite phrases, especially when it comes to food. Somewhere between the lines of "well, we came all this way" and "YOLO" it offers a nice excuse to order too much food and spend too much money.
I tried the following options from the in-store menu:
I started off with some recommended green tea and a black sugar Manjuu, which is a
rice dough based sweet filled with sweet bean paste. This version uses black sugar from Iriomote-jima, Okinawa (one of my favorite trips so far! See my blog here). I love how a sweet with sugar AND sweet beans still has such a balanced sweetness compared to Western confectionary. Toraya's version has a great filling-to-dough ratio, so it does not taste dry, like the ones you find at the konbini.
This amazing desert covers all the best flavors and textures! Natural agar-agar seaweed chunks are topped with sweet bean paste, shiratama glutinous rice balls (OK, not the most sexy description, but I promise they're good!), in-salt-water-boiled sweet beans, and Toraya's homemade Awa (Tokushima prefecture) syrup. The agar-agar has a smell that reminds of the sea and a jelly chewiness. The shirotama balls are a tough mochi. The beans offer a bit of a bite, while combining sweet and savory. And lastly, the sweet bean paste is smooth and very sweet. From mushy to chewy; and sweet to salty, you've got it all with the Anmitsu!
ところてん Tokoroten - One of the most interesting options is this Japanese dish made from agar-agar seaweed. The jelly-like noodles don't have any flavor (or gluten, carbs or hardly any calories) from themselves, but are complimented with locally produced soy sauce, vinegar, roasted sesame seeds and chopped up nori seaweed. Served cold, this is a refreshing snack during the summer, and perfect for those preferring a savory, or low calorie-high fiber option. In Kansai tokoroten is often eaten sweet, with Kuromitsu syrup.
The white plate has "shiokombu" - dried, salty seaweed, which accompanies all of the orders and is a great snack to *fancy tone* "balance your palate".
As soon as I walked into the shop, I knew I needed to have Oshiruko! If this doesn't prove I'm over my sweet bean paste trauma... Oshiruko is basically a "soup" made of sweets beans and mochi. It's very sweet and served hot - making it a great comfort food during winter. It is even available in hot cans in many vending machines! This version with high quality beans and sticky mochi rice cakes was incredible and definitely my favorite of the four dishes! (probably also the highest in calories...)
Still haven't got enough? Toraya also has a take-out menu and an online shop for both in- and outside* of Japan! To complete my sugar rush I took home: 抹茶きんとん Matcha Kinton - sweet beans paste in a green tea flavored dough. 最中 Monaka - sweet beans paste sandwiched between crisp mochi waffles (TIP!)
赤飯大福 Sekihan Daifuku - sweet beans pate mochi made with red bean rice.
None of them made it till the next day... #aMomentofSilence
*(the international online shop is currently paused as a result of COVID-19)
Address: 1022-1 Higashiyama, Gotemba City, Shizuoka 412-0024
Access: 15-minutes by car or taxi from Gotemba Station on the JR Gotemba Line.
Food: High quality Japanese Wagashi confectionery, with green tea
Price: You pay for the quality. ￥519 Wagashi ～ ￥886 anmitsu/oshiruko/tokoroten
Service: Sweet and polite. Knowledgeable on ingredients
Overall: A must-try for any Wagashi lover. Experience the REAL taste of Japanese mochi and other popular confectionery in an enchanting Japanese tea room with kind staff, photographable scenery and recipes based on a history of 400 years!