I visited wagashi asobi on a sunny day in the end of February, just when the mimosas at the entrance were about to bloom. They are located in Kamiikedai of Ota-ku – a minute walk from Nagahara station. Nagahara is probably not a location that would be on your guidebook of Tokyo – it is an ordinary residential neighborhood, and it may surprise you a bit. But wagashi asobi is definitely worth the visit.
I learned about wagashi asobi some time ago from my mother who is always keen on good things in life. (I don’t know where she gets her information, but she is the one to go to when I am searching for something specific!) So I first visited their atelier slash store last summer when I was looking for a small yet impressive gift to give to a client, who has great taste in food, wine, interior, music or actually almost everything! I wanted to find a gift that was unique and sophisticated, and not sold in every department store – and wagashi asobi was my mother’s recommendation.
Wagashi asobi was founded by Motohiro Inaba and Rio Asano, who both worked for Toraya, the acclaimed Japanese confectionery that have been in business since the 1600s. I was welcomed by Mr.Inaba, and was able to hear about how he started “wagashi asobi” and his thoughts toward wagashi (Japanese confections).
Mr.Inaba joined Toraya after graduating from high school, and worked there for twenty years, of which he spent 6 years working at Toraya in New York (the store is now closed). While working for Toraya, he and Ms.Asano also started collaborating with various brands and artists. Mr.Inaba referred to himself as a “freelancer” wagashi shokunin (artisan). They soon realized that they needed a name for themselves, and started using “wagashi asobi” which is the name of their brand and store today. “Wagashi” means “Japanese confection”, and “asobi” means “play”, and they did just that. They started making wagashi in new ways using new ingredients and new methods.
The dried fruit yokan is a good example of how they “played” with the concept of the traditional yokan and transformed it into something familiar yet so different. Yokan is a bar of sweet bean paste jelly, made of azuki bean, sugar and agar-agar and sliced when eaten. It is usually eaten together with Japanese tea, but it is quite conservative in the appearance and a bit old-fashioned in a world where there are so many fancy sweets. However, wagashi asobi has given yokan a new appeal. The dried fruit yokan was a result of a request that they received from a friend, which was to create a wagashi that could be eaten together with bread. They first came up with ingredients that went well with bread like red bean paste (there is popular snack called “anpan”, a bread roll with a red bean paste filling), brown sugar, walnuts, and dried fruit. They soon realize that brown sugar and rum must be a good match since they are both made from sugar canes. Then, they then pictured a yokan that resembles a pate or terrine and how the walnuts and dried fruit would look when sliced. After many trials, they created the dried fruit yokan, which is one of the two products that they sell at wagashi asobi today. They gather the best ingredients from throughout Japan, including azuki bean from Hokkaido, and brown sugar from Okinawa.
The sweet bean jelly paste is very smooth, and the contrast of the texture of walnuts and dried fig and strawberry is enjoyable. The rum is quite noticeable, and the aroma of rum will fill your mouth when you take a bite!
Mr.Inaba mentioned that the dried fruit yokan was first served at a party that CHANEL held, and it was a customer at the party that told him that the yokan goes well with wine. Ever since, they have also recommended eating the yokan with wine. Another way of eating the dried fruit yokan is by putting a thin slice of the yokan (about 1cm) on a baguette or cracker topped with cream cheese or mascarpone cheese. It makes the perfect appetizer, or can also be enjoyed after a meal, together with drinks like whiskey or rum.
Who would of thought of eating the yokan together with bread and wine? They have reinterpreted the traditional yokan into something that can be enjoyed not only with green tea but with coffee, wine, whiskey, you name it. Mr.Inaba and Ms.Asao are very passionate about wagashi and the future of wagashi. They have over 25 years of experience and extensive knowledge and skill that come with it, but they are also open to new ideas, and that is probably the recipe to their success. They have become the rising star in the wagashi world.
They serve only two types of wagashi at wagashi asobi, and the other is the “rakugan” which also uses very unique ingredients. We will feature it in next week’s blog!
Address:1-31-1-101 Kami-ikedai, Ota-ku, Tokyo
TEL & FAX:03-3748-3539
Access: One minute walk from Nagahara station (Tokyu Ikegami line)
Turn left after exiting the station, turn right at the end of the road and walk 80m. The store is on the left side.
Opening hours: 10:00-17:00
Please check their website for holidays as they can be closed due to out of store events.
*Please not that they are closed from March20-27th
Dried fruit yokan available for 2,160 JPY
*Can be enjoyed for approximately 15 days. They can only make around 100 sticks a day.