An Afternoon in Autumn: Wagashi and River Cruise at Toyama City

After a few months of sweltering heat, I was looking forward to enjoying an afternoon stroll under milder climate. I found myself at the Toyama Castle Park. It was a wonderful place for sunshine and gentle breeze. During medieval times, the Toyama Castle was known as the “floating castle”. Today, the castle grounds remain one of the most historical sites in Toyama Prefecture. We can experience remnants of history through a peaceful walk around the serene park.

Toyama Castle, moat and cherry blossoms
Photo used under CC0 license

The historical Toyama Castle has a quiet little neighbour sitting next to it for over two decades – the Matsukawa Teahouse.

Matsukawa Teahouse exterior
Matsukawa Teahouse

This teahouse provides more than just food and drinks on its menu. There is a mini museum within Matsukawa Teahouse which chronologizes the life and times of Rentaro Taki, one of the most well-known Japanese music composers during the Meiji era. The German rock band Scorpions did a cover of Rentaro Taki’s signature piece “Kōjō no Tsuki” in one of their concerts.

Statue of Taki Rentaro
Rentaro Taki museum

Besides music and archives, an unconventional menu was awaiting my appetite at the teahouse. Instead of choosing something from the regular menu, I got myself a package of cultural experience: “Art of Japanese Sweets & Cruise”. My decision was motivated by curiosity. I wanted to be an apprentice for a day, learning about one of the most ancient Japanese arts under the tutelage of a master.

Traditional Japanese sweets (wagashi) come in different shapes, sizes and stories. Typically served with tea, the culture of gifting wagashi was mentioned in historical tales from the Muromachi era (14th – 16th century). During the height of its popularity in Edo period, the finest quality wagashi from Kyoto was the symbol of Japanese High Culture and it was a very fashionable food item to have in a household.

The process of making wagashi is known to be laborious. There are reasons behind this. The artistic characteristics of wagashi are designed to express poetry, historical events, natural scenery or changing of seasons. At Matsukawa Teahouse, I learnt how to make wagashi under the guidance of an experienced wagashi master from Heiando Toyama. It was exciting as well as an honour. Heiando wagashi was presented to two generations of Crown Prince and Crown Princess of Japan (Showa and Heisei era) during their official visits to Toyama.

blue and white wagashi with red fish design
blue wagashi wrapped in cherry leaves
flower and moon-viewing themed wagashi
lavender-colored chrysanthemum shaped wagashi
jelly wagashi in shape of a maple leaf

There were two packages to choose from (Type A and Type B) and both included a river boat cruise. The wagashi flavours and designs differ according to season and events. For this particular afternoon, I had to make a tough decision between Type A (Halloween theme wagashi with red bean paste filling) and Type B (Autumn in Toyama theme jelly wagashi). I chose Type B out of my liking for jelly desserts. As I was making a few autumn jelly wagashi, I regretted my decision for not choosing those cute Halloween wagashi (Type A).

A friendly in-house interpreter (Japanese-English) eased my kitchen experience (yes, a personal interpreter comes with this package). I enjoyed the process of making my own little pieces of art — it’s really fun!

instructions and ingredients for making wagashi
Wagashi adventure: instructions and ingredients
making wagashi
making wagashi
making wagashi
making wagashi
autumn-themed jelly wagashi
Wagashi adventure: my completed jelly wagashi!
Halloween themed wagashi
Wagashi adventure: the cute Halloween wagashi that I did not choose *sigh*

One of the highlights in this experience was my learning about artistic expressions in wagashi making. I was amazed that the concepts of realism and abstraction in fine arts were applied in designing wagashi. Thus, making wagashi encouraged me to use my hands and my mind — it’s both doing and thinking at the same time.

After some fun time at the kitchen, the products of realism and abstraction went down into my stomach. I took my completed artwork on a boat ride down the Matsukawa River and enjoyed afternoon tea.

Wagashi arranged on a tray, on a boat
Row row row your boat gently down Matsukawa River: Yum!

It was a wonderful experience filled with sight, taste and gentle motion. As I savoured my handmade wagashi, I wrote a poem in my diary:

W alking by a grand castle,
A n afternoon in autumn,
G reeted by a little teahouse,
A nd an unconventional menu,
S urprises awaited me,
H ow entertaining!
I nside a little teahouse, an afternoon in autumn.

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