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Junichi Mitsubori is a third-generation master of Wagashi reviving the art of making traditional Japanese sweets by hand.
Much like a master of the tea ceremony, Junichi Mitsubori is a grand master of "Ichika" style, where he has turned making traditional sweets into a refined art form.
The master crafts his gyūhi (glutinous rice flour mochi) with his fingers and a haribashi (stylus) into intricate sugary creations as part of an elegant performance of creation, which he calls Kado. Music and traditional craftsman are integral to the performance as well as channelling the influence of the elements of nature and the fours seasons of Japan in his stunning creations.
Mitsubori has even showcased the traditional art form overseas to international audiences, putting on a kadō performance at the Sydney Opera House in Australia as well as performing at the 2017 Salon du Chocolat in Paris.
Meanwhile the meticulous craftsman is able to communicate the beauty of his art through social media channels appealing to a wider, and more contemporary audience with over 26,000 followers on Instagram account.
We spoke to him to find out more about why he wants everybody to see the artistic world of wagashi in his stunning new bilingual book, in Japanese and English, Kado: New Art of Wagashi.
Can you describe “kadō” ?
Kado is the "new way" of wagashi - entertaining guests with traditional Japanese sweets. Just like every other ‘-do’ (the way) the most important spirit has respect for all things in the universe.
What equipment do you need to perform Kado?
Obviously, the ingredients for the sweets and the preparation technique must be perfect. But also things such as the space, plates, utensils, sounds, and ambience all create the art of hospitality for the guest. I take care of all of these aspects to make sure the guest has a special experience.
How did the art of wagashi evolve?
The art of wagashi has evolved with Chado, 'the way of tea’ (Japanese tea ceremony) and this traditional culture started from yin and yang and the five elements philosophy based on the rule of nature.
What is the wagashi experience?
The tea room is made small and dim. To have wagashi in that room will give you not just the sweet taste of the sweet but a calm and soothing feeling to the soul. This sweet is not just enjoyed through taste and smell, but also visually, through a sense of touch, and hearing as well. That is the wagashi experience.
What is your signature dish and why?
The work named Benirangiku, 'intricate chrysanthemum’, is a symbol of Kado and a piece that I perform frequently for guests.
How do you make wagashi?
This wagashi is made using a pair of bespoke haribashi, 'chopstick with stylus’, designed by myself. The techniques using this haribashi call harikiri. The piece made with harikiri technique has lots of movement and a passionate style compared to the one using scissors which has a quiet and calm style. Benirangiku is using red and deep black red nerikiri, with this symbolic 'movement' and 'burning fire' design.
Image: Benirangiku, Intricate chrysanthemum
How did you become a wagashi master and can anyone become one?
Of course, everybody can become a 'master'. I started my school and became a master because I wanted to build my world to the future within the traditional Japanese culture. This school is based on my style, so my 'Ichika-ryu' is equal to myself Junichi Mitsubori. There are many ways of calculated gesture in the Ichika-ryu technique, however, the most important technique is 'performing wagashi presentation with a spirit of hospitality' which is also seeking a spirit of Zen. Sharing and sympathising this spirits with your guest is called 'Otemae', for that needs the highest level of wagashi making skill.
How do you evaluate a traditional art like wagashi?
I always ask my wagashi to be eaten in front of me. This is because that is the most beautiful and delicious, perfect timing. But my wagashi is 'not for sale'. The price of art is evaluated by the people who see it, so I stopped to put a price on my wagashi. It is just like a cup of tea made by Chajin or a pièce montée by a pâtissier: it cannot be priced.
What do you think the future is for kado?
I hope that many people start their own style and schools. The world needs competition. It is not who is the best or not. By competing technique and philosophy, this world will further sublime and I believe Kado will remain in the future.
All images © Akiko Oshima