The methods wagashi master Chikara Mizukami uses to create his signature Japanese confections don't look difficult. He paddles, pinches and sculpts the sugared bean paste, rolling it between his palms to produce perfect orbs. If he applies too much pressure, he warned an audience gathered yesterday at Lark for a two-hour fresh wagashi workshop, "You get a spaceship. You don't want a spaceship."
Amateur wagashi makers end up with spaceships. Their candies are lopsided and irregular, with the first camellia flower wagashi in a batch bearing little resemblance to the final camellia flower. Sometimes they add matcha powder to their pastes, perverting the intention of wagashi, which is to enhance green tea, not compete with it. ("The tea is like the prime minister," Mizukami explains.)
Mizukami doesn't make those mistakes. A 40-year veteran of the wagashi business, his work is sophisticated and refined. He's been recruited to craft wagashi for tea ceremonies featuring service items classified as national treasures, although civilians can buy his confections at his Tokyo shop for $7 or $8 apiece.
"To be able to watch a master of his caliber is very, very rare," says Sonoko Sakai, the Los Angeles-based food writer who arranged Mizukami's trip and serves as his translator. Mizukami arrived for his first-ever U.S. visit armed with two suitcases full of bean paste.
Wagashi is a 1200-year old art, dating back to an era before processed sugar, when confections consisted only of fruits, nuts and seeds. There are now two dominant forms of wagashi: the samurai-style, which emphasizes hyper-realistic renditions of flowers and other natural objects, and the imperial-style, which stresses abstract interpretations.
Both styles are firmly rooted in the traditional Japanese calendar, which is divided into 72 seasons, according to various anticipated blooms and sproutings. Mizukami says global warming has frustrated his efforts to practice wagashi-making the way it was taught to him as an apprentice in Kyoto: The seasons no longer unfold as they did centuries ago.
"With climate change, people's senses of the seasons are changing," he says, teasing a wagashi he created to salute Seattle's autumn treescape. "It's almost like an education, telling people this is the color of fall."