December 01, 2021

Look, Eat, Feel: Unforgettable Japanese Confections

見て、食べて、感じて、記憶に残る和菓子<br>御菓子丸 杉山早陽子

Sayoko Sugiyama,Okashimaru

Interview: Aki Miyashita/ Photographs courtesy of Okashimaru


Look, eat, feel.

For Sayoko Sugiyama of Okashimaru, traditional Japanese confections are edible art, something like a modern art installation. She creates each piece with consideration for the total experience, from seeing the confection to eating it. A beautiful shape, followed by the aroma, texture, and taste; a piece of artistic expression that must be eaten to be complete.

“I want to make wagashi (Japanese confections) that show you a beautiful scenery with each bite. Although the confection itself does not remain, that scenery can expand and linger in your memories.”


This summer she released a confection that has a familiar rich sweetness and aroma. She named it Kanro (“nectar”), it is a type of mizu yokan, a soft, jelly-like treat that is served chilled during the summer months. What makes Kanro different is its unusual key ingredient: corn. The natural sweetness of the corn is the star, Sayoko adds only a small amount of sugar to balance the flavors. In Buddhism, kanro (甘露) is a sweet elixir from the heavens that grants youth and immortality, not unlike ambrosia in Greek mythology. On a hot, humid day, Kanro from Okashimaru certainly tastes like a life-giving elixir.

Corn is an unlikely ingredient in a traditional confection like mizu yokan, but Sayoko uses a variety of fruits, vegetables, herbs, and spices in her confections. She says it was experiencing Chinese tea that inspired her to incorporate a wider variety of ingredients. 

“In a Japanese tea ceremony, wagashi has a supporting role. The sweetness complements the bitter green tea, but the aroma must be subtle. Confections for tea ceremonies use color and form to represent the changing seasons, but the flavor is the same year around. This always seemed a little strange to me, but that’s just the way it is done.”

However, Sayoko says that becoming familiar with Chinese tea, often paired with fruits and nuts, inspired a change in her perspective.

“Fruits and nuts are also the origins of Japanese confections. Roasted chestnuts, boiled shiitake mushrooms, and dried persimmon are noted in records of tea ceremonies held during the Edo period (1603-1867). Given that sugar was not readily available, it makes sense that the pairings would be different from today. I like to imagine the details of how something like dried persimmon may have been served... In a sense, my wagashi may be a return to what was served at tea ceremonies in the past.”

Shushi (Seeds)

While it may not be appropriate for a formal tea ceremony, why not include seasonal ingredients to represent the seasons for a more casual affair, or to pair with Chinese tea and other beverages?

This idea inspired Kobutsu-no-mi, an amber crystal sprouting from a delicate spicebush (kuromoji) branch. She explains that she imagined how the past could inform the present, thinking, “If the history of Japanese confections began with fruit and nuts, what if many years ago a fruit crystallized and became a fossil…”. Encased in the crystallized agar (kanten) shell is a soft center flavored with mandarin orange. It is a treat that at once engages your senses and sparks your imagination.

With the end of summer, she has recently released Chie-mochi, a layered rice cake made with coarse rice powder and a fig filling. Each piece is carefully wrapped in a fig leaf, making it even more fragrant than the fruit itself. As chie means knowledge in Japanese, the name calls to mind the story of Adam and Eve using fig leaves to clothe themselves in the Garden of Eden.

Sayoko is offering her creations primarily via her online store as she is unable to hold events due to the pandemic. This made the necessity of shipping the items a key consideration in her design process. Both Kanro and Chie-mochi are seasonal creations developed under these logistical restrictions.


“Each confection must maintain its shape and quality during transportation. But I also wanted to continue creating things that would leave an impression. It has involved a lot of trial and error and creative solutions, but it’s been surprisingly fun. I feel like I’m preparing presents. It has been exciting to see customers opening and enjoying their orders via SNS as if they were receiving a treasure box.”

Sayoko is also a new mother; she gave birth to twins just last year. She had worried that she would be unable to continue her work, but her staff has been able to support production during the day and she develops new wagashi at night when her children are asleep. She found that the pandemic has made it possible for her to spend more time focusing on making each piece more special than the last.

View of Okashimaru studio


While she enjoys the challenges of selling her confections online, Sayoko looks forward to having a space to connect with customers again. “Eventually I want to open a café where I can serve each customer directly. I think that one-to-one communication can create something really unique.” 

No matter where or how you encounter the unforgettable confections of Okashimaru, be sure to take time to savor the scenery revealed in each bite.

Sayoko  Profile Photo : Shuya Nakano


Sayoko Sugiyama

Born in Mie Prefecture in 1983, Sayoko is currently based in Kyoto where she operates Okashimaru. She first decided to work at a confectionary after being inspired by “WAGASHI: The Art of Japanese Confectionary” (PIE International). Before starting Okashimaru, she collaborated with partner Minako Uchida as the wagashi unit Nikka for 10 years. Currently Okashimaru sells wagashi exclusively online.