While visiting Tokushima, Japan, for the 2016 Japan Writers’ Conference, I made several new friends–some of whom invited me to visit a traditional sweet shop during one of our breaks from conference sessions.
Japan has many traditional shops, including restaurants, sweet shops, and bakeries, that have changed very little with the passing years. Some remain essentially the same as they were before the modern era — and entering them can be intimidating for Western visitors with a less-than-perfect grasp of Japanese language and culture.
Two of the women who invited me to join the “sweet shop group” are Japanese, and they admitted to feeling a little shy, sometimes, about stepping into one of these establishments–primarily because this kind of traditional shop is often marked by nothing more than a noren with the name of the shop (but not its business) on the front, creating the potential for embarrassment if a person steps inside and discovers (s)he doesn’t actually want to be there.
The shop in question stands across the street from Tokushima Castle Park, and looks more like a house than a store, because it has existed there since before the arrival of “modern” storefronts:
Like many of its brethren, the entrance to this sweet shop is marked only by a noren, with no other signage to indicate the existence or nature of the business:
Behind the noren and through a paneled wooden door, visitors will find a lovely little shop with various kinds of cookies, candies, and traditional sweets, intended for consumption by the purchaser or–more commonly–as omiyage. (Gifts or souvenirs, usually edible, that travelers customarily purchase take home to family, friends, and business associates.)
I didn’t photograph the store, because it would have been impolite and awkward–though the boxes of traditional sweets were truly beautiful–as most omiyage are.
Beyond the shop sat a small, tatami-floored tea room with paneled sliding doors that opened onto a maple-shaded garden surrounded by a wall that hid both garden and tea room from the street. Rows of benches and low tables ran around three walls of the room (the fourth was taken up by a lovely tokonoma, or decorative alcove, with a seasonal art display).
Each table held a small wooden plaque with the tea shop menu printed on it:
Like many traditional restaurants and tea shops in Japan, the menu featured seasonal specialties–in October, when I visited, guests could choose between a pairing of tea and chestnut cake and the special dessert–a bowl of traditional sweets that featured mochi (pounded rice cake), adzuki beans, sweet potato and jelly cubes, and candied fruit.
The special dessert sounded so good that all five of us ordered it — and no one was disappointed:
In addition to the bowl of sweets, each tray contained a bowl of tea (upper right in the photo above) and a small ceramic pitcher full of simple syrup flavored with local tea, which guests could pour over the sweets.
Japanese sweets don’t appeal to everyone, but I happen to like them very much–and if you ever find yourself in Japan, I hope you’ll take the opportunity to try them too.
Do you like sampling unusual treats and visiting traditional shops when you visit foreign places?