Wagashi Master Junichi Mitsubori in Toronto Interview Part 2/2

Junichi Mitsubori, the founder and master of Kado, or the way of wagashi, continues to promote the beauty of wagashi across both Japan and the world. In April, he began touring around North America, starting with Toronto. In our previous article we asked him about how he came to the decision to become a wagashi artist, the ups and downs he faced along the way, and the intention behind his performance and his costumes. Let’s take a look at the rest of the interview.

“Philosophy” and “human nature”, the two keywords for a global expansion.

Toronto is a very multicultural city. Do you think wagashi would be accepted by the people here?

I honestly don’t know. The goal of my performances isn’t to sell wagashi per se. A friend from Europe often gives me advice when I perform, and one of them was “Do not introduce wagashi as a commodity”. Selling something is never really attractive if you just try to push it against the audience. Rather, they would be attracted naturally if you can show them the value in it. That’s why I think the whole wagashi experience begins with something artistic, something with a dream even. People won’t pay you if you tell them, “Buy this.” But if you manage to move someone’s heart, money would follow. As my friend said, the culture of wagashi isn’t about food as an everyday commodity. What wagashi fulfills is the heart, not the stomach. That’s why I feel the delivery of philosophy and art must come before anything else.

Would you say that artistic performances like yours be essential to promote the philosophy and art, and for wagashi to earn worldwide popularity?

Rather than art, I think it’s about the person: the person that brings their philosophy into the art. I think everyone would want to try the wagashi if they can see the person that’s at the heart of it. A lot of what is being created by artists today, including wagashi, can soon be made by robots and machines. At that point, the world will be filled with things empty of feeling, the audience will begin to lose interest. That’s when art made by man would show its true value. I also think that’s where the border between the worlds of technology and craftsmen need to be drawn. It is also for this reason that I, as a wagashi artist, vowed to never make wagashi as a commodity ever again once I began performing on stage.

I see. It is your philosophy that forms the basis of your performances.

Yes. Fortunately, many from my hometown cheer me on, and many from Japan tell me that they want to try the wagashi from my shop as well. The thing is, when they say that, that’s similar to trying something from a famous pastry shop, isn’t it? The chefs supervise their products, but they’re not the ones that make them. Even so, the public wants to try what the chef “makes” because they resonate with the chef’s philosophy. This is a perfect example of the contrast between the person and the product. It’s the person, rather than the product, that should be at the centre of attention.

“Reimportation of culture will move the young generations of Japan.”

Is there a reason why you continue to promote wagashi overseas?

Wagashi is part of the Japanese culture. I want the young generations of Japan to think it’s cool, and to be proud of it. What I aim for by promoting wagashi overseas is that it eventually, the culture will be reimported to Japan. The sad thing is, Japanese people often don’t see the beauty of their own culture until they see it from the outside. Another thing that plays a role in this is the fact that Japan admires the West. When the West says that Japanese culture is cool, the people, particularly the younger generations, of Japan follow suit. It’s a little disappointing, but it’s true. That’s why art forms like kabuki and ukiyo-e that became popular in Europe and the United States were reimported to Japan, and their beauty was recognized once again in its country of origin. It’s the same thing with wagashi—they won’t see the charm in it until the West does.

When I began travelling around the world, I had thought of Paris as the ultimate goal. It’s the land of art, and it’s where the latest trends come from. That’s why I said I want to go to Paris as soon as I became a wagashi artist. But a wise friend of mine told me to not go to Paris until I was invited there. Paris is full of new artists, so they won’t take a look at anyone that says, “Please look at my work.” I was told to go wild in Asia until I was invited to Paris. “You are not the westerlies,” he said, “but the easterlies instead.”

Do you think wagashi has earned worldwide popularity after you began performing overseas?

This year, we have a new employee from Malaysia at our wagashi shop. Slowly but surely, I’m seeing progress. I was invited to Paris for the first time last year. It had only been three years since I began performing, so I thought the invitation came in pretty quick.

I’ve also published a book recently. There’s a small book store in Paris that only sells books related to art and selected by Hermes. I actually took my book there, assuming they wouldn’t take it. To my surprise, they actually took it and my book is still there. It’s those small things that move people like the young generations of Japan. I didn’t take the book there to sell it. Instead, I took it because I wanted to introduce wagashi to a wider audience. Perhaps it was the skills I earned through my business experience that helped. Those skills just seem to follow me wherever I go. Even when I perform as an artist, a part of me still thinks like a businessman. I think about what I could do so that more people would look at me and learn about what I do. It’s not about earning more money though, unlike business. I simply want to share my dream with everyone else.

What are your prospects for the future?

One of my dreams is to get young children to say, “I want to be a wagashi maker in the future.” Every year, there is a star festival back in my hometown where children write their wish on a strip of paper and hang them on a wishing tree. I read every single one of those. 40 to 50 of them would say they want to be a pastry chef in the future, but I have yet to see one that says they want to be a wagashi maker. One day, though, I would like to see those words written up there on the wishing tree.

Would you say that is your ultimate way of restoring the popularity of wagashi in Japan?

I think so. Or maybe a shop in Tokyo named Salon de Anko (red bean paste)! Whatever I aim for, though, I won’t achieve it if what I do is merely be an artist travelling solo around the world. Instead, it needs to be a movement.

In order to make this happen, would there need to be more wagashi makers like you, that focus on the visual aspects of wagashi?

I don’t think they need to focus on the visual aspects of it necessarily. As long as the audience can see the wagashi makers themselves in the wagashi, then the audience would view the stage as a battleground, a place of competition. A movement occurs when many of those battles happen at once. I often call myself the Darth Vader of the wagashi world, partly because of my costume. A college teacher once told me he wouldn’t want my wagashi to be the world standard. That’s why I’m hoping a Jedi would appear sometime soon.

“What’s demanded of me as a craftsman is the ability to master a single art.”

Do you think cooking competition shows are popular because there is a battle of philosophy among the chefs?

Perhaps the audience might see it as a battle, but it’s actually an act of sharing. I do tell myself to follow through with my style and to remain unaffected by those around me when I participate in such shows. The world is a very multitalented place nowadays, so being multitalented is becoming a norm. But there are two sides to every coin—somebody who can do a little of everything does not specialize in anything. As a professional, what is demanded of me is the ability to master a single thing, a single art. Back when I used to appear on TV, I used to make a lot of “look-alike” wagashi. Ever since I started performing though, I stopped being that wagashi maker that can make anything and everything.

Historically, confectioneries in Japan used to be much more specialized. The word “wagashi” was only created after the Second World War, when Western sweets were brought into Japan. It hasn’t even been a century since that word was made. It was made to contrast Japanese sweets from Western sweets, which are now called “yogashi” (“yo” means Western, “wa” means Japanese). Before that, wagashi was merely referred to as “kashi”, which just means “sweets”. The shops didn’t sell everything like wagashi shops do now—a mochi shop would only have mochi, a dango shop would only have dango, and so on. Every confectioner was a specialized professional. Once the word “wagashi” came along, all Japanese sweets fell under one big umbrella. From then on, wagashi shops were expected to have every wagashi they could think of. As a result, they became multitalented, but no longer specialized.

Times are changing, and so is technology. As technology develops, it becomes more tempting to use them, especially the useful ones. That’s why I try to focus on how to present myself as a person. After seeing my performance, the audience will notice that I am multitalented, and that I can actually do quite a range of things. But the reason I am doing this is to promote “nerikiri” worldwide. As I do this, it’s essential for me to not be tempted to do anything else other than making wagashi. There are so many things out there, and some of them can be very tempting. But if I try to do everything, people would no longer know what I specialize in. That’s where I need to endure and discipline myself.

You have your own philosophy, and the people that resonate with your philosophy. Is that why this whole process works?

Yes. There’s nothing to be afraid of as long as I have people that understand me, that resonate with what I do. I have a dream within myself that I want to achieve, so fortunately, I’m not affected much by how much money I earn. As I said, money would naturally follow, as long as I continue producing something interesting for everyone to see. At least enough for me to nourish myself!

Nerikiri: the specific form of wagashi Mr. Mitsubori specializes in. Made from white bean paste, it is coloured and shaped, often to portray the beauty of the nature and seasons.

Wagashi Master Junichi Mitsubori in Toronto Live Performance at Sushi Restaurant Shoushin

On April 16, a performance by the wagashi artist, Junichi Mitsubori, was held at the Japanese restaurant Shoushin in Toronto. The small number of guests who were present at the performance experienced Mr. Mitsubori’s craftsmanship right in front of their eyes.

Prior to the performance, Mr. Mitsubori set up the stage with attention to every detail—a proof of his perfectionism. In particular, he adjusted the lights again and again. “The beauty appears not in the light but in the shadows,” he explained. “That’s why I spend so much time to make sure that every light is at the correct angle to create the perfect shadows in the wagashi.”

After many careful adjustments, the stage was ready. Mr. Mitsubori, dressed in his iconic black kimono, brought himself to the centre of the stage. “My costume is black to bring the movement of my hands to the centre of attention. I also put a mask on because I do not speak during my performance. You see, what’s cool is no longer cool if I speak too much during my performance,” Mr. Mitsubori explained. Upon placing the mask on his face, Mr. Mitsubori began his performance. The audience followed suit, and soon the whole room fell silent and all eyes were on Mr. Mitsubori’s hands. Using tools, some of which the audience had never encountered before, Mr. Mitsubori gave life to what were mere balls of red bean paste.

The five pieces, as Mr. Mitsubori described, symbolize each of the four seasons and Canada. Indeed, the aesthetic of “kachofugetsu” (花鳥風月), which loosely translates to the beauty of nature, was captured in every piece. Despite having seen them come to life, the audience was once again in awe upon encountering the intricate detail of his works.

After the performance, Mr. Mitsubori answered questions from the audience and also expressed his thoughts about the future of wagashi. “In a world that’s evolving so quickly, wagashi also needs to change,” admitted Mr. Mitsubori. “In particular, I constantly think of how I can make wagashi attractive to the younger generations. Performances like this one is one of my ways to increase the popularity of wagashi among them and also among people from around the world,” he added.

In addition to Mr. Mitsubori’s individual performance, Chef Jackie Lin, the sous chef of Shoushin, made wagashi alongside Mr. Mitsubori, receiving instruction at every step along the way. Chef Lin struggled through the process, which demonstrated how difficult it is to master the art.

When asked about his impression of Toronto, Mr. Mitsubori commented, “It’s one of the most multicultural places I have been. It made me want to live here.” This was Mr. Mitsubori’s first time in North America, after having performed in Asia, Europe and Australia. As Mr. Mitsubori continues his journey around the world, we hope he will return soon to further promote the beauty and tradition of wagashi in Canada.

(Japanese Article: カナダで日本の伝統技術を伝える グローバルに活躍する和菓子家 三堀純一 インタビュー後編