We’re all familiar with the notion “phone eats first,” but what happened before camera phones were invented? Would people take a moment to savor their treats, or would they start cutting into their meals before their plates hit the table? We like to think it was the former, at least when it came to amezaiku.
Amezaiku, or Japanese candy art, is an ancient Japanese tradition that can be traced back to the Heian period from 794 to 1185 CE. Amezaiku hard candies are unlike any other, with their hyper-realistic animal designs and lollipop-likeness. Amezaiku requires a distinct skill set that not many people have anymore. The sculptor heats up molten rice malt to roughly 90 degrees Celsuis, and from there, they manipulate the shape with just their hands and a pair of traditional Japanese scissors. The sculpting process takes a matter of minutes, due to the fact that the artist only has so long before the candy hardens again. After the taffy has been shaped it is painted and dyed, creating a beautiful finished product that often resembles a glass sculpture. This culinary art form gained popularity during the Heian period when people would leave hard candy as temple offerings. Then, amezaiku saw a resurgence in the Edo period (1603 to 1868) when traveling street vendors would entertain passersby with their candy-making talents.
This style of confectionery is a bit different from other types of Japanese candy creations, like dagashi. Dagashi are a type of candy that are celebrated for their flavors and inspired packaging. One of the most popular kinds of dagashi is konpeito, or Japanese star candy. Japanese star candies share a lot in common with the penny candies of the 50’s and 60’s from the United States: they’re cheap, they’re small, and they’re often individually wrapped. So clearly there aren’t many similarities between amezaiku and konpeito, or at least, not on the outside. Both types of candy are made by kinkato, a sugar confectionery that originated during the Edo period. With just water, sugar, and a rotating pan, you’re on your way to becoming a Japanese candy maker!
As mentioned before, the art of amezaiku is becoming increasingly scarce as sculptors, known as takumi, are struggling to find successors. In fact, there is said to be about only 100 takumi left in Japan. Luckily, the tradition is still very much thriving, thanks to the determination and innovation of one sculptor. Takumi Shinri Tezuka is keeping his affection for the traditional alive by adding his own modern twist: the Internet. By posting images of his work, he is able to educate an entire network of people and develop a worldwide interest in this vanishing cornerstone of Japanese culture at the same time.
It goes without saying, but there has truly never been an art form quite like amezaiku. Who wouldn’t want to eat a sugary piece of art? We may not know how much longer the tradition will last, but we do know one thing for sure: hard candy is nothing like it used to be!