Say “beans” at home and people will think of baked potatoes, or toast, or pies and chips, and inevitable flatulence. It’s very different in Japan. Here, beans are immediately associated with sweets.
You find the stuff everywhere: in the middle of pancakes, in buns, served in restaurants, in shops, with green tea… It’s an acquired taste. And our joint opinion? Well it’s not chocolate, put it that way.
Nonetheless, it’s big business here, and as we made our first stop to Kagetsu, in the remarkable Nanao, Ishikawa, we got the chance to make our own bean-based sweets. I’d like to be able to tell you more about how the beans are sweetened but the proprietors wouldn’t tell us what they use. We laughed and expected them to then confess, but nope – this is like the secret magic recipe to Irn Bru, and they weren’t budging.
Anyway, the sweets are hand-made. It’s a surprisingly easy process, just a case of moulding and wrapping and following the sensei. As the seasons roll past, so the designs change. Today we made a little house with a snow-covered roof, and a winter flower. They looked pretty dainty, too. And the taste?
Let’s move on, shall we?
Lacquerware is one of the great many things in which a large number of prefectures claim to be utterly expert. We’ve no idea who’s is best, but even our untrained gaijin eyes could tell the Ishikawa product on sale at Araki was high quality. A shame, then, that we set about ruining some perfectly nice and shiny chopsticks.
Black (or red) lacquered products look very sleek, but to make them truly shine, the Japanese developed the gold inlay, or chin kin. You’ve probably seen the kind of thing before: elegant flowers shimmering from a bowl, or graceful cranes preening themselves on lacquer cups.
The basic idea behind these beautiful pieces is that designs are first scratched into the hard surface, then filled in with gold leaf. It sounds childishly simple, but we can tell you now: of the many handicrafts we’ve attempted on this trip, this was by far the hardest.
The lacquer is so hard that enormous amounts of pressure are needed in order to dent its surface. That leads to needles bumping and skidding all over the place, creating wild, ugly shapes. And every error is punished: the gold doesn’t discriminate between deliberate scratches and the botched ones – everything is gilded.
We weren’t helped by trying to do this impossible handiwork on chopsticks, the rounded corners of which frequently sent our needles flying from their surface. No, no: best to leave this stuff to the professionals.
With stress levels raised, it was probably just as well that our final stop was Takazawa, a candle and incense makers. Located just a few doors down from the other shops, simply walking through its sliding doors began to ease our troubled minds. Years’ worth of scents mingled in the air, making it impossible to pick one thing out from another, so instead we headed upstairs to try our hands at making something a little fresher.
Kaori or fragrance bags, have a long history in Japan, dating back to the Heian period when people would blend their favourite scents to create their own variety. Star anise, cloves, sandalwood and cinnamon sat in front of us today and we were invited to mix them however we liked.
This being Christmas, I loaded up on cinnamon and cloves; Katy, meanwhile, went heavy with the sandalwood. Then we mixed them with a little borneol (a preservative), wrapped them in little hand-crafted pouches and gave them a good sniff (or “listen” as the Japanese say), happy to have made a couple of easy Christmas presents on the cheap.