Traditional confectionery thriving in Japan

Traditional confectionery thriving in Japan

Rob Gilhooly reports from Tokyo on a market which is continuing to show a continued trend of growth.

Japan’s traditional confectionery market and production is imbued with the visual beauty and attention to detail that runs through so much Japanese culture, and exporters have started to explore their appeal to overseas markets.

These assessments have been partly driven by Japan’s ongoing international tourist boom, with foreign shoppers snapping up tasty treats that have been honed for domestic consumers for centuries.

A good example is traditional ‘namagashi’ confectionery, for instance made by renowned Kyoto sweet maker Tsuruya Yoshinobu, which was established in 1803. When visited by Confectionery Production, one of its artisans Masahiko Mizue rolled multi-coloured balls of dough and with the palm of his hand eases them through a bamboo sieve, deftly transferring the resulting flakes to decorate a truffle-size cake made from sweet azuki bean paste.

A few tiny cubes of transparent ‘kanten’ jelly completes a creation that depicts a blooming hydrangea with drops of morning dew nestled between colourful petals, reflecting a practice in namagashi confectionery to make seasonal features of the natural world a feast not just for the eyes, but the taste buds as well.

“I find this part of the process breathtaking,” said Mizue, whose career as a confectionery-maker spans 40 years at Tsuruya Yoshinobu. “It just looks so beautiful.”

Beauty is an inherent characteristic of the plethora of traditional Japanese confectionery, much of which dates back to the country’s Edo Period (1603-1868), when Japan was largely isolated from overseas influences.

Some traditional confectionery styles are even older. ‘Yokan’ dates from the 12th century and traditionally employs little more than azuki, sugar and kanten, a natural gelling agent made from seaweed.

This long-established taste for confectionery has been a basis for the develop of a wide-ranging modern market: in 2018, total confectionery sales were Japanese Yen JPY3.4 trillion $30.6 billion), according to an annual survey by the All Nippon Kashi Association (ANKA). When measured by sales of chocolate, gum and sugar confectioneries, Japan is currently the globe’s sixth-largest confectionery market, according to market researcher Euromonitor International.

According to ANKA data, popular products are sugar confectionery, chocolate and biscuits, whose sales grew 4.1 per cent year-on-year in 2018.

Hexa Research predicts Japan’s market will grow a further 20 per cent by 2025, “driven by an increase in … awareness of the positive attributes associated with chocolate, sugar and gums”.

Despite the growth in popularity of western-style sweets, ‘wagashi’ – the umbrella term for traditional Japanese confectionary – has managed to hold its own. ANKA’s survey shows annual wagashi sales be consistently hitting the JPY465 billion to JPY500 billion (USD4.2 billion to USD4.49 billion) over the past decade.

Traditional confectionery thriving in Japan

A contributing factor is the rise in popularity of Japanese sweets among overseas visitors, whose numbers surged to 31.2 million in 2018, a 133% increase over four years earlier (13.4 million).

According to the Japan Wagashi Association, 80 per cent of them buy Japanese confectionery as souvenirs, generating revenues of JPY176 billion ($1.6 billion).

This has led to a push to export wagashi by some makers. While Japanese confectionery exports were hit hard following the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster and the 2008 global financial crisis, when the yen appreciated sharply, exports doubled between 2012 and 2017 (JPY13.2 billion to JPY27.9 billion, according to ANKA), making up 9.6 per cent of Japanese food exports, government data shows. Exports grew a further 10 per cent in 2018 to JPY30.5 billion (USD276.2 million), according to ANKA.

One major attraction of wagashi is their healthiness, said Isamu Ozeki, president of confectionery packager Anzen Pax Corp. “One reason Japanese cuisine has found favour overseas is its healthiness, and wagashi products are no different,” said Ozeki, whose company makes eye-catching packaging for wagashi.

Ozeki also heads a consortium of wagashi makers who, under the title Yokan Collection, have presented their products at fairs in Paris and Singapore, with another planned for New York later this year.

Yokan products on show include those made by Toraya, a 500-year-old Kyoto maker that is well placed when it comes to understanding the overseas market. In June 2020, its boutique store in central Paris will celebrate its 40th anniversary.

Toraya Paris (https://www.toraya-group.co.jp/toraya-paris/) is one of just a handful of specialty stores operating outside Japan. Others include Minamoto Kichoan (https://www.kitchoan.com), which has outlets in 11 overseas locations, including in the USA, UK and Taiwan.

Meanwhile, another traditional confectionery called ‘dorayaki’ – essentially two fluffy pancakes with a sweet filling – has proven a hit in London, through Wagashi Japanese Bakery (http://www.senjukitaya.com/dorayaki.html), which was started by a family member of Tokyo-based confectioner Kitaya.

One of the obstacles that has prevented more widespread appreciation of wagashi outside Japan is the employment of sweetened beans as the main ingredient – at odds with the common use of beans in savoury dishes outside Japan, Ozeki said.

To overcome this, makers have emphasised the nutrition of wagashi such as yokan, which in addition to containing 30 per cent fewer calories than western-style cakes also contains more than 20 times less fat and is additive-free. Azuki beans are also high in antioxidants, including polyphenols, he added.

Some makers have also found innovative ways to attract consumers. While dorayaki are traditionally filled with azuki paste, Wagashi Japanese Bakery employs more familiar fillings for western palates, such as chocolate cream and custard.

Another difficulty of exporting some wagashi varieties is the freshness of the ingredients. A literal translation of ‘namagashi’ is “raw confectionery,” meaning they often must be eaten on day of production.

“With Japanese foodstuffs booming overseas, there is a demand, but it’s problematic to export without suitable handling knowhow at the receiving end,” said Tsuruya Yoshinobu marketing head Shigeo Fusho.

Traditional confectionery thriving in Japan

Yet, some varieties are clearly exportable. Two types of confectionery made in Okinawa called ‘kippan’ and ‘toganzuke’, made from the kaabuchi citrus fruit and kippan winter melon, respectively, are available via e-commerce from Jahana Kippan – the sole remaining producer of this centuries-old confectionery (http://www.jahanakippan.com/en/).

Meanwhile ‘daifuku’, a soft, glutinous rice-cake traditionally filled with azuki paste, has started to gain a wider audience thanks to adventurous fillings, a clever rebranding as ‘Cream Daifuku’, distributed via advanced freezing technology.

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