In Japanese culture, food is viewed with a holistic approach. It won’t do for food to just taste good; it must look good as well.
Amezaiku (飴細工) is the art of sugar sculpting. It is not like other cooking or baking processes that many can learn after a few tries. Amezaiku is comprised of two words: ame (飴) meaning ‘rice sugar’, and zaiku (細工) meaning ‘craftsmanship’. Thus it is a craft that takes years to refine and perfect. Although it is made from sugar, and hence edible, its main purpose is decorative. They make great souvenirs. The sugar is usually crafted into animal forms – with goldfish, birds, frogs, horses and rabbits being popular.
How is Amezaiku made?
The sugar product used is called mizuame (水飴) – a clear sugar syrup traditionally made from rice starch (although potato starch can be used). It is similar to the American corn syrup, and has long been used in traditional wagashi (Japanese-style sweets) to add sweetness and to give the finial product an elegant sheen.
The mizuame is heated to around 90C (200F), where it develops a consistency like taffy. At this point, the ame-shokunin (飴細工職人 – an amezaiku craftsman) will pull out a glob and stretches it in front of a fan. The stretching incorporates air and helps the syrup reach the right temperature for moulding. At this stage the craftsman will add colouring, if required, and knead the sugar until it turns opaque. When the syrup is at the correct temperature, it is placed on a stick. From now, the craftsman only has 3 to 5 minutes to shape the syrup before it hardens. Their only tools to this are their hands and a pair of traditional scissors. By snipping, pulling, twisting, and stretching, the craftsman can create an endless array of forms and figures right in front of your eyes.
History of Amezaiku
The art of sugar sculpting began in China. It reached Japan during the Heian period (794-1185). At this time the sugar was moulded by blowing air into it, similar to how glass is blown. They were often used as gifts or temple offerings.
Amezaiku as we know it today was thought to have emerged during the early Edo period (1603-1868). In addition, or instead of, blowing the sugar into shapes, the craftsmen started to pull the sugar. At this time it was known as ame-no-tori (飴の鳥 – candy birds) as birds were the usual shape the sugar was pulled into. Since the Edo period was blessed with relative peace, it was an everyday sight to see amezaiku vendors walking up and down the streets to display their skills and hawk their wares. They were also a common sight at festivals, sculpting live; and it was from these occurrences that amezaiku developed into a form of entertainment, especially for young children. Over time, the techniques to shaping the mizuame grew more complex. According to a flyer at a present-day amezaiku shop in Tokyo called Ameshin, these complex techniques were developed by ninjas. These ninjas covertly gathered the techniques and skills of the different ame-shokunin and amalgamated them.
However the late 20th century saw a rapid decline in the ame-shokunin and the craft of amezaiku. In the 1970s, the Japanese government introduced new food health laws that prohibited candy from being made on the streets. They also banned the practice of blowing sugar because the inside of the sugar would contain bacteria from the craftsman’s mouth. Furthermore, with the economy moving full speed towards gentrification, there was little appeal of making a career in this craft. Finances nonwithstanding, there is no special technique to handling 90C sugar. You just have to tolerate burned fingers until the skin hardens and the nerves die. Furthermore, you had to have great skill in crafting, more so than in the past. People previously bought amezaiku firsthand for themselves, and so part of the appeal was watching the craftsman make your sculpture right before your eyes. The final product could be a little wonky. But now people bought amezaiku as gifts. The recipient would only see the final product, and thus it had to be perfect.
Present Day Amezaiku
Fortunately the craft is not lost; although there aren’t many ame-shokunin nowadays. There are only two known in Tokyo: Tezuka Shinri, and Yoshihara Takahiro.
Tezuka Shinri is a self-taught ame-shokunin. And a young one to boot – he is 28 at the time of writing. He owns a store called Ameshin, in Tokyo’s Solamachi shopping complex. Tezuka has his own style of amezaiku. Instead of kneading the sugar until it turns opaque, he leaves it transparent. When the mizuame is shaped and hardened, he painstakingly paints his creations in life-like colour and detail. This results in a more refined amezaiku, with an elegance that appeals to adults.
Yoshihara Takahiro became an amezaiku apprentice when he as 27 years old. He owns a shop called Amezaiku Yoshihara, in Sendagi, Tokyo. It is the first specialised amezaiku shop in Tokyo. Yoshihara has his own mascot – a amezaiku rabbit called Ame-pyon. Unlike Tezuka, Yoshihara crafts in the traditional method, and his shop filled with cute renditions of animals is highly appealing to children and females.
While amezaiku is not as common nowadays, it is certainly uplifting to see people working to keep this great art alive. With the plethora of snaps, instagram photos, and Facebook posts circulating the world, here’s hoping these beautiful works gain the notice they so much deserve.
Now that would be a sweet ending.
Ame-Shin 2015, ‘What’s About Amezaiku?’, Ame-Shin, < http://www.ame-shin.com/en/>.
Great Big Story 2016, Keeping The Japanese Art of Candy Sculpting Alive, video, YouTube, 26 October, viewed 1 August 2017, < https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DW9Y0aIKXeY>.
Jobson, C 2015, ‘Realistic Animal Lollipops and Sugar Sculptures by ‘Amezaiku’ Artisan Shinri Tezuka’, Colossal, 11 May, viewed 1 August 2017, < http://www.thisiscolossal.com/2015/05/amezaiku-animal-lollipops/>.
Joy, A 2016, ‘Amezaiku: traditional Japanese sugar sculpture’, Culture Trip, 17 September, viewed 1 August 2017, < https://theculturetrip.com/asia/japan/articles/amezaiku-traditional-japanese-sugar-sculpture/>.
Somera, L (translator) 2016, ‘Japanese Encyclopedia: amezaiku (candy artistry)’, Matcha Japan Travel Magazine, 23 August, viewed 1 August 2017, < https://matcha-jp.com/en/2527>.
SweetsTales 2012, Japanese Candy Sculptures “Amezaiku” [Sweets Tales] & French, video, YouTube, 4 December, viewed 2 August 2017, < https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wkLKb2Ebvdw>.
Watanabe, T (translator) 2016, ‘Edible Traditional Craftwork! Amezaiku Candy at Tokyo Skytree’, Matcha Japan Travel Magazine, 29 May, viewed 1 August 2017, < https://matcha-jp.com/en/1825>.
Ref 1: http://www.nationmultimedia.com/life/The-sweetest-of-Japans-traditions-30279883.html
Ref 2: http://www.thisiscolossal.com/2015/05/amezaiku-animal-lollipops/
Ref 3: http://www.thisiscolossal.com/2015/05/amezaiku-animal-lollipops/
Ref 4: http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2014/11/06/national/small-shops-in-tokyos-yanesen-area-keep-crafts-alive/#.WYFLA1ojFPM
Ref 5: https://candypros.com/blogs/candy-pros/the-dazzling-craft-of-amezaiku