In the years before and after World War II, there was a shop on the corner of Sixth and Main in the International District named Sagamiya. In the heart of Nihonmachi (Japantown), it specialized in “wagashi,” palm-sized confections of rice or wheat dough and sweet bean paste. Sagamiya and its homemade wagashi held a special position in Seattle’s Japanese community. The “issei,” or first-generation immigrants, gathered there to chat and enjoy a little taste of home. Their children and grandchildren looked forward to the sweet treats and the connection to their culture as the Japanese population dispersed throughout the region, especially after the war. In a 1990 interview for Northwest Nikkei, Yoshi Mamiya, a daughter of the family that owned Sagamiya recalled, “We all put in a stint at the store … I found I got to know a lot of people because they used to come in to the store. That’s what I miss the most.” Since it closed in the 1970’s, local Japanese Americans fondly recall Sagamiya and yearn for the wagashi of their youth. In recent years, a number of Japanese-style bakeries have sprung up to satisfy their cravings.
As a child, Art Oki was devastated when Sagamiya closed. As an adult he continued to feel the gap it left in the community. After retiring from a career in finance, he studied the painstaking craft of wagashi and recently opened Umai Do (1825 S Jackson St., Ste 100, Seattle, WA 98144), the first traditional Japanese confectionery in the International District since Sagamiya (see story, page 10). Open just one month, business has been brisk for Oki who, with the help of one baker trainee, makes every piece by hand.
When Chika Tokara moved to Seattle from Japan ten years ago, she began making wagashi for friends and quickly became aware of the pent-up demand in the community. Already skilled in making and teaching wagashi, she undertook an apprenticeship in Kyoto with a master artisan, returning to open Tokara Japanese Confectionery in north Seattle (6208 Phinney Avenue North, Seattle, WA 98103). Her wagashi are delicious little works of art, prized by connoisseurs of Japanese culture such as the Urasenke Society.
Wagashi are quintessentially Japanese in their subtle combinations of flavors, colors and textures. A sweet served by the piece like sushi, it is neither cookie nor candy. Common ingredients are red or white beans, sweetened and mashed or pureed; and mochi, a rice flour dough. Wheat flour is also used. A seemingly infinite variety of ingredients from green tea to egg to lotus to kuzu root adds color and flavor. Textures tend to be soft or gelatinous. Sugar is used sparingly so that wagashi are less sweet than western confections. Less sugar means shorter shelf-life; like French bread, wagashi are best eaten the day they are made. Shapes, colors and flavorings vary with the season; the finest wagashi are expressions of time and place. Tokara explained that, as in other art forms, there are distinct regional styles and individual chefs develop their own recognizable styles.
“I like to challenge my mind,” she said. “It is not difficult to diversify, to create your own designs.”
As in other art forms, cross-cultural communication has inspired new fusions of old traditions. Setsuko Agata learned to bake in Japan, but her confections reflect the diverse influences that have infiltrated that country’s cuisine. Trained in French pastry, bread, and wagashi, she said, “I like to mix and to introduce people to new styles,” said Agata. Setsuko Pastry’s signature green tea roll cake is a Swiss-style sponge cake flavored with green tea and filled with whipped cream and mashed adzuki beans. Green tea also seasons her tiramisu and cheesecake. Agata makes her own bean paste from scratch and all her baked goods are low in sugar, giving them a subtle sweetness and light texture reminiscent of wagashi. (Setsuko Pastry, 1618 North 45th St., Seattle, WA 98103.)
Keiji Koh was born and raised in Tokyo. After attending college in Washington, D.C., he moved to New York and found himself working at Panya, a French-Japanese fusion bakery where he mastered French pastry and Japanese style breads on-the-job. His Fresh Flours shops in north Seattle and Ballard (6015 Phinney Avenue N., Seattle & 5313 Ballard Avenue NW, Seattle) feature macaroons and muffins flavored with green tea alongside more western flavors.
“Anything that tastes good, I want to make,” he said. His crisp flaky croissants fresh from the oven are a best seller. Koh makes an adzuki bean-filled croissant that, with a cup of hot green tea, may be Seattle’s most perfect fusion pastry. These creative treats fill not only our stomachs but our memories, as Sagamiya did a generation ago.
Visit these local shops!
Umai Do Japanese Sweets
1825 South Jackson Street, Seattle
Open Wednesday – Sunday. Several varieties of steamed and baked manju available daily, to take out or to enjoy with a cup of tea at tables in the bakery.
Tokara Japanese Confectionery
6208 Phinney Avenue North, Seattle
Wholesale and special orders only, three days notice required. Tokara holds an open house on the second Sunday of each month; a three-piece boxed set of seasonal wagashi may be reserved in advance, for pick-up on that day.
inside Issian Restaurant, 1618 North 45th Street, Seattle
Setsuko Pastry items are on the menu at Issian and other Seattle-area Asian restaurants. Whole cakes and mochi to order. Mochi is available on the weekends at Issian. See her website and blog for classes and seasonal specials.
6015 Phinney Avenue North, Seattle
5313 Ballard Avenue NW, Seattle
A wide variety of western and fusion baked goods, sandwiches, coffees and teas, made on the premises at the Ballard shop, to take out or eat in. Both of the sunny bakery/café locations have plenty of indoor and sidewalk seating.
526 South King Street, Seattle
1502 – 145th Place SE, Bellevue
Japanese-born, French-trained bakers Taka Hirai and Yushi Osawa offer a menu of Japanese-influenced and western, sweet and savory breads and pastries at their bakery/cafes.