Saturday, my sixth day in Kyoto, was my “experience day.” I’d been hoping to do some hands-on activities, not just sightseeing, while I was in Kyoto. As I mentioned previously, there are many activities available, but most of them cost a pretty penny (or yen), since they are specifically catering to tourists. However, after scouting around, I found some more inexpensive options, and decided to treat myself to two activities that I was interested in trying: sweet making and calligraphy!
On Saturday, my first destination was the sweets shop Yoshihiro, where I was to take a class for making wagashi, or traditional Japanese-style sweets. At 2000 yen, the class was still a bit on the pricey side, but was the cheapest of all the options I’d found. Besides, attendees got to take home several of the handmade goodies, which to me made it worth it!
Although the pamphlet from which I’d heard about the store was in Japanese, I’d found an English application page online. However, the store staff didn’t seem to speak much English, and I think there may have been a bit of misunderstanding about whether I’d actually applied. I hadn’t been able to really understand their reply email, since it appeared to have been run through a translation app of some sort and thus was only marginally comprehensible. However, when I showed up at the store, after a bit of communicating amongst themselves and checking with the person in charge, they accepted me, so I was grateful for that.
I joined the rest of the day’s class members – all of them Japanese – and did my best to follow the instructions about washing hands and so forth. The instructor had already prepared two ready-made sweets, and had the materials ready for us to replicate the exact same designs.
A word about wagashi: Japanese sweets are quite a bit different from American candies, one difference being that they are usually perceived to be less sweet. The kind of sweet we were making was “nama,” or raw, wagashi, and the “dough” that we worked with was soft and colorful, a lot like working with Play-Dough. We took preformed, colored balls, and following the instructor’s examples, molded the colored dough around balls of sweetened bean paste which acted as a filling. (I later learned that the colored balls were also made of sweetened bean paste which had had color added.) We blended the colors and shaped the balls just so, sometimes using a wooden pick as a tool, to create the shapes we were trying to make.
Apparently, the designs made in the classes are changed to reflect each new season. Since it was winter, we made pine (a symbol of New Year’s here) and plum blossom.
The instructor’s creations (the two on the top in the photo below) were so skillful! Mine were decidedly less so.
After the class, we were all given a cup of green tea (the real kind, whisked in a cup!), along with a small baked manjuu sweet. The instructor also demonstrated a different design for us, working the dough deftly with her hands and showing us how she used different parts of the hand to make the shape, as well as a triangular-shaped wooden tool to create a petal design. She was amazingly quick, and we were left in awe of her sweet-making skills!
After my namagashi adventure, I killed some time exploring before heading over to my next class: calligraphy! Although I’ve practiced writing kanji (Japanese characters), I know nothing about drawing them with a brush. I figured this was a great chance to learn! I’d found a bargain-priced class offered at another local guest house run by a husband and wife team; the husband offered calligraphy classes for only 1000 yen an hour.
I was received very warmly, with a cup of coffee and the wife on hand to translate as needed. The husband first wrote my name in kanji that he had picked out, which matched the sounds in my name, and tried to explain the meaning. Then he set me up with a brush and the most amazing calligraphy-writing mat, which turned dark when brushed with water, so no ink was needed. It was great for practice, and turned white again when dry, so it could be re-used!
It turns out that calligraphy was MUCH harder than I’d anticipated – I did my best, but still elicited some exasperated noises from my trainer. Apparently, calligraphy is about more than just creating straight lines with the brush, but is also about moving the brush just right to create certain brush strokes, and about invoking personality into the characters by the way one writes the strokes. Who knew!
Thanks to the couple’s hospitality, I was entertained for well over an hour. I left with an acknowledgement of my own ineptitude for calligraphy, but also with a sense of warmth from the couple’s graciousness. I was also quite pleased to receive a new calligraphy brush and one of the practice mats to keep!
Here’s a video recap of my adventures:
And, for the record, I did get a friend to share my sweets with. One of the guests from Okinawa returned that evening, and we had a great time eating sweets, drinking tea, and chatting!
See you for the final installment of my Kyoto adventures next week!