A new Japanese confectionary shop called Umai-do (which means “delicious way”) opened on South Jackson Street in the International District recently. The store, owned and operated by Arthur Oki, will feature both baked and steamed confectionary treats called “wagashi,” each handmade daily by Oki himself. This new venture for the retired accountant is more than a hobby or passion—it’s a connection with his past and beloved neighborhood.
Inspired by a Japanese sweet shop called Sagamiya that once stood in Seattle’s Japantown or “Nihonmachi” district decades ago, Oki set out to recreate, and in some ways, build on his childhood memories.
“Seattle used to have this confectionary shop in the late 60s and early 70s,” said Oki. “Going there was a lot of fun and exciting to pick up sweets as a kid.”
Oki plans to expand on a visitor’s experience beyond the sweets and offer people a sense of Japanese tradition. “Sagamiya was just a walk-in type storefront. I am going to add a sit down area to have tea to go along with sweets,” said Oki, referring to an important Japanese tradition of serving tea with the confections.
When Sagamiya closed in the early 70s, many in the community were caught by surprise. For Oki, as well as many others, the closing of the shop left him feeling there was something missing in the community.
To fill the gap left by Sagamiya’s closure, Oki hopes to have a sweet shop that may introduce the art of Japanese confections to a whole new generation of consumers while still catering to aficionados.
Oki sells two types of traditional confections—steamed and baked wagashis. The steamed confections have a sweet rice flour or “mochi” covering and are filled with red or white bean paste in the middle. The baked wagashis are created in the shape of mountain potatoes or chestnuts.
ki learned to create Japanese confections from a Los Angeles-based sweet shop called Fugetsu-do. Oki spent five years there learning how to make different types of Japanese confections from scratch. One of his first challenges was to create the mochi—soft rice paste—planting the seed for his future steamed delectables. In order to make mochi, sugar is mixed with mochiko, a sticky rice flour. After water is added, the mochi is then put in the stove, where it is heated before being shaped and kneaded into the various shapes that make up the wagashi.
Creating the confections is a meticulous process. Oki said, “On the steamed side, you steam the sweet rice flour. Once it’s steamed, you go through an aeration process. While it’s hot, you hand-cut the pieces into appropriate sizes—there are 1-ounce and 2-ounce sizes. Then you fill the center of mochi with bean paste, [known as] anko.”
Oki draws from a rich tradition of wagashi-making that goes back thousands of years. The early Japanese from the Jomon period (14,000 BCE – 300 BCE) ate fruits and nuts as confections to supplement their diets. From the Asuka period in the 6th C. to the beginning of the Heian era in the 8th C., Japan sent envoys to T’ang China where they encountered a refined and sophisticated civilization. The envoys returned with eight types of T’ang confections which were then studied and disseminated into Japanese culture.
Tea is an important accompaniment to the wagashi, as indicated in Oki’s desire to create a sit-down space where tea is consumed with the treats. Though tea had been consumed in Japan since the early 700s and possibly before, it did not occupy a significant place in the culture until 1191, when according to legend, a Zen priest named Eisai, brought tea seeds to Kyoto. From then, tea accompanied the serving of wagashi as a complement to the sweet and nutty flavors of the confections.
Oki hopes to inspire people to learn more about the art of Japanese confections. It is a task well-suited for this retired accountant, who spent his youth connecting to his heritage by savoring these treats. So, whether out of curiosity or to rekindle a passion for these delicacies, make your way to Umai-do, where you can relish the signature sweet “imogashi,” Oki’s favorite confection, which according to him, is “a Japanese version of a snickerdoodle.”