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  Japanese Shinise "Shiose" Preserves Its Tradition For 650 Years.
 
 

Nearby the famous Tsukiji fish Market, which is a highlight of Tokyo sightseeing especially travelers from abroad, Japanese oldest confectionery "Shiose" locates its flagship store and factory. Though the Second World War burned most area in central Tokyo, the district around Shiose remained safely because American air force avoided attacking a big hospital which existed around there. Including the war, the 650-year-old Japanese confectionery experienced many disastrous events. Some of them hit Shiose hard and put its business into crisis. However, the Shinise, which is a Japanese word meaning well-established business with more than hundreds years of history, survived. One of the reasons was its variety of loyal customers, ranging from the emperor , senior politicians, military, to general customers. Shiose is still actively running its business today and bringing the traditional taste of Japanese confection, Wagashi.

30 Years is not enough to master the technique which has been carried over for 650 years

Every day, morning in Shiose begins with a daily routine - peeling Japanese sweet potato. For its flagship confection "sweet steamed buns," or "Mantou" in Japanese, sweet potato is the key ingredient to produce dough. Shiose ships tens thousands pieces of Mantou in various productions every day to 26 branch stores around the country, and its volume of consumption of sweet potato is numerous. However, surprisingly, the peeling process is done by people's hand at Shiose, and it is not the only manual operation. Though this modern, civilized country, none of Shiose's manufacturing process is automated. "Sometimes it is said to be inefficient. I understand it, but we need to make confections by hand to keep our quality high," says Eiko Kawashima, Chairman of Shiose. She is the 34th owner of Shizose, which was established in 1349.

Taking over the technique that was being fostered for more than six centuries is not an easy task, and the confectioners are demanded extremely high criteria in techniques. In Shiose, it needs at least 10 years for confectioners to become a professional with certain level of technical excellence. Many of confectioners are working for 10 or 20 years, but Eiko says it is not enough and they still need more practice. "The leader of raw confection, "Nama-Gashi," is a professional with 35-year experience, but he has not mastered the technique completely yet. He needs help from 42-year veteran, who retired but helps us for emergence, when we get order from very important customers."

Today three confectioners are dedicating their efforts to dough production, and its leader has been working only for dough for about 35 years. "He is a great master, but still need practice," says Eiko. Weather, temperature, humidity are different every day and the condition of the sweet potato, especially the moisture, is not the same as well. In order to keep consistency in the quality, the manufacturing has to be made by hand and it needs enormous time to learn.

Shiose prioritize keeping its tradition and technique, but it focuses on satisfaction of customers as well. "Only thing we have to do is to do our very best to make good confections for customers. We also have to follow our belief. As long as we can follow the belief, we will be able to go up some day even if we are in a bad situation," says Eiko, who has 650-year history in her shoulder. Her each word reflects what she learned from her 33 predecessors.

Founding of Shiose ? History of Shiose is history of Japanese confection

Shiose's history goes back to the era, when Ashikaga family governed the country. It was founded in 1349, and at that time Japan put its capital in Kyoto. Which means, Shiose's has older history than the high-profile, registered world-heritage Kinkakuji Temple, which was built in Kyoto in 1397. During the same period in Europe, Black Death went around and killed one-theird of the entire European population. Shiose's foundation was twelve years after the Hundred Year's War began between England and France.

In the middle of 14th century, a Japanese Zen priest Ryuzan-Tokuken Zenji went to China for the purpose of Zen practice. When he returned to Japan, one of his pupil accompanied with himi. His name was Jyoin Rin, who became the founder of Shiose later.

 


Photos by Urban Heritage Chronicle


Shiose's flagship store in Tsukiji, nearby
famous fish market central Tokyo.


Shiose's famous Jyoyo-Mantou - its recipie has not changed for more than 600 years.


The wooden board which Shogun Ashikaga gave Shiose in mid-1400s. It says Shiose is
the number one Manto manufacturer in Japan.


 
 

According to historical reference that Shiose possess, Jyoin Rin started his Japanese life in 1349 in Nara (today's Nara Prefecture), and made a living by making steamed buns. Nara was the capital of Japan in eighth century, and during this period many temples were built (most of them still exists today). Jyoin Rin sold steamed buns mainly to these temples.

Steamed buns, which Jyoin Rin brought from China, was a bun with meat and vegetable filling inside. However, since Buddhist monks were prohibited to eat meats due to its religious restriction, Jyoin Rin boiled up red bean and made beam jam, which is called "Ann" in Japanese, and used it instead of meats. He added infusion of tendril as sweetener instead of sugar (sugar did not exist at that time) to the boiled beam. He put the filling to the bun and steamed it. This is the beginning of Shiose's steamed buns.

The filling, "Ann," is the fundamental essence for Japanese confection "Wagashi." In Wagashi, Ann is the main ingredient and it is a thing that gives sweetness. Ann is used in most of Japanese confection in a way or another. Its role is equivalent to cream or chocolate in Western style confection. Jyoin Rin invented the Ann, which means he can be called also as the inventor of Wagashi.

Jyoin Rin's steamed buns spread among high class people who huddled together in the temples. At that time dried persimmon or chestnut were the main sweets and steamed buns brought a big impact to them. Because of its high profile and good reputation, Jyoin Rin presented his steamed buns to the time's emperor. It was the most honorable thing for general people at that time.

Jyoin Rin's business was carried over to the generations and his descendant divided the business into two families: one is Nara, and the other is Kyoto. Kyoto was the place where generations of Japanese emperor lived as the capital of Japan from 794 to 1869. In 1467, 36 years after French saint Jeanne d'Arc was killed, a war and big turning point in the Japanese history, "Onin-no-Ran," took place. The west-versus-east war continued for 11 years, and it burned the town of Kyoto.

The successor of Jyoin Rin left Kyoto and moved Mikawa, current Aichi Prefecture, to visit his relative, who succeeded business and became rich, whose name was Shiose. The Jyoin Rin's successor spent years in Mikawa with the relative and he finally called himself as Shiose since then. Rin went back to the capital Kyoto after the war, and started confectionery again under the name of Shiose. According to the Shiose's reference, its business bloomed in Kyoto.

At that time, Shiose received from the day's Shogun (prime minister) Yoshimasa Ashikaga, who lived from 1436 to 1490 and famous for his cultural achievement rather than political or battle achievment, a wooden board that mentioned "Shiose is the number one Manto manufacturer in Japan." The renovated board is still displayed in the current Shiose headquarters (see photo).

According to the reference, Shiose was loved by Shogun Nobunaga Oda, Hideyoshi Toyotomi, or Ieyas Tokugawa – who governed the country, as well. When Tokugawa moved Japanese government from Kyoto to Edo, Shiose also moved to Edo and started its new business. Then, Shiose had customers in upper class of the Edo government. After the Meiji Revolution, Shiose got royal warrant and had businesses with imperial family. "During the early times of Emperor Hirohito, Shiose had big business with military. After Japan lost the Second World War, Shiose faced crisis because its big customer has gone," says Eiko.

Heading for complete product

Surprisingly, today's method to make steamed buns and its composition of the material are almost unchanged from the period when it was invented more than six centuries ago. This is not because of just sticking to the old tradition. Eiko Kawashima says this is because of Shiose's steamed buns is complete product that leaves no room for furtner improvement.

Now and the past, Shiose's signature menu has been Jyoyo-Mantou. In Japanese, Jyoyo means mashed Japanese sweet potato, and it is the key ingredient of the dough. The history of Jyoyo-Mantou goes back to Shiose's fifth owner, Syouhan Rin. He went to China and learned the technique, which was used to make confections for the Chinese palace. He applied the technique, used Japanese sweet potato to make dough of the steamed buns, and finally developed the Jyoyo-Mantou.

Syouhan's invent was very important for Shiose's history. According to Eiko Kawashima, the recipe and technique that Shiose uses today to make Jyoyo, mashed sweet Japanese potato, is the same as the one that Syouhan invented. That means, Japanese customers have been loving the same confection over centuries. The invention of the technique is also important for the history of the whole Japanese confection industry. Today, variety of confectionaries are providing Jyoyo Manutou, however, without Syouhan's invention, we cannot enjoy Jyoyo Mantou today.

"One of our challenges is to prepare a certain quality of Japanese sweet potato every day, all around the year," says Eiko. As written above, every morning Shiose peels and mashes enormous amount of raw potato enough for tens of thousands pieces of steamed buns which Shiose is shipping every day. Unfortunately, many of other confectionaries uses dried sweet potato powder instead of raw potato, because it can simplify the process and do not have to procure sweet potato around the year. "Of course we use raw potato because we do not want to sacrifice quality for simplifying process. In order to secure enough amount of potato throughout the year, we have few contracted farms," Eiko says.

Bean jam, which is used as sweet filling of the buns, is the most important ingredient for Japanese confection, "Wagashi." Bean jam is called Ann in Japanese and is usually used as a filling of confection. Sometimes it is used in other form, for example, Yo-kan is a long square confection, which coagulates Ann. Anyway, again Ann is very important, and Shiose does not cut any corners in producing Ann - Shiose purchases red bean by itself and make the filling from scratch, as well as buns – although many other confectionaries purchase in-process materials of Ann for process simplification and cost reduction.

The difficulty of making Ann is the procurement of the raw material, especially red bean. Red bean is sold by the year of harvest, for example, this year, last year, or two years ago. The best quality is usually given from this year, but red bean wholesalers often mix past one with this years' to sell out old beans. It seems to be a very little difference, however, since Shiose pursues complete confection, Eiko goes to the farmer and purchase from them directly. "I am telling my successor, 36th generation, to keep this because of quality control. This way is also unchanged from the past generations," says Eiko.

Shiose's confectioners are strictly trained to follow the precept that the 32nd owner Kamejiro Watanabe, Eiko's father, left. Kamejiro was the legendary confectioner and he strictly stuck to keeping the composition and the quality of the materials. Since his training to to-be confectioners was very hard, they often said "We should go to Shiose, or die." Eiko says, "My father told me to keep his precept, and I am also telling the same thing to my successor."

The taste that has been carried over centuries is magnificent. Once having a bite of Shiose's steamed buns, the gentle flavor of Japanese sweet potato spread inside the mouse. The texture of the bun is comfortably elastic and more bite gives more sweetness. The filling, Ann, is not too sweet and balanced taste. Each steamed buns has low calory and it is healthier than other confections.

Strict to the Profession even in the crisis

Shiose's business was not always good. During 650-year history, there were many ups and downs. Unlike in other regions, Shinises in Edo, or Tokyo, experienced extra hardships. For them, the most difficult events for survival were Meiji Revolution, Kanto Great Earthquake, and the Second World War. These events took customers away from them, and ruined and burned Shinise's shops, factories, assets, traditions, and cultures.

Shiose's confection was loved by the powers-that-be - from 17th to 19th century its main customer was the practical ruler Shogun, his families and their servants. When the Meiji Revolution in 1868 threw the Shogun family Tokugawa away from the politics and the emperor took back the rein of the country, Shiose lost big business with the Shogun. However, luckily, Shiose got to serve the imperial family. And then Shiose lost the customer again when military was gaining power of the country. However, Shiose survived the crisis again – it was allowed to work for the military. Then, another crisis came again- it was after Japan lost the Second World War.

t was not only customers that Shiose lost. The confectionery lost its properties two times in the recent 100 years. In the Japanese capital Tokyo, there was a big earthquake, which is called Great Kanto Earthquake, in 1923. According to a record, the ever biggest earthquake killed 142,800 people, broke 128,000 buildings, and burned 447,000 houses. Shiose had a large building in Tokyo's most prominent commercial avenue Ginza, but it was burnt. Shiose started from ruins and recovered. But the Second World War hit them again.

"During 650-year history, there were many ups and downs," says Eiko, "We lost customers and properties. The most difficult time might be the post Second World War period." At that time, there was nothing in Japan, meaning food, goods, or whatever. Especially confection ingredients and materials were difficult to obtain because they were amenities for life and not living daily essentials. It was a difficult time not only for Shiose, but also for every confectionery in Japan.

Many of them sold things that are far different from its core business. Sasanoyuki (please see this article for detaisl of Sasanoyuki) sold grilled chicken, which was quite different from its original business Tofu cuisine. Even Toraya, the biggest Wagashi confectionary that was established around 1520, sold bread or ran a cafe to earn living for employees.

"In our case, it was different from others. In a way, my father cut his own throat. However, I am very proud of what he did," Eiko remembers the past. It was almost impossible to obtain brown sugar in the chaotic postwar period, and some confectioneries substituted saccharine for brown sugar. But Eiko's father Kamejiro Watanabe never used ingredients and materials that could not qualify his scrutiny.

In result, Shiose suspended its business. Kamejiro Watanabe decided to wait until he could obtain ingredients and materials that met his criteria. It took two years until he could get materials he wanted. According to Eiko, his father received offers on business alliance from big food corporations, but Kamejiro declined. "The person in charge said Kamejiro was the first person who declined partnership with such a big corporation. Kamejio wanted to keep Shiose's quality," says Eiko. Kamejiro also declined offers from department stores to sell Shiose's confections in their confectionery counter. Kamejio thought the taste of Shiose's confection would be damaged if confections were exposed on the shelf. Kamejiro thought Wagashi tasted best, right after its production, and Shiose at that time manufactured build-to-order and sold the confections only at the front of its headquarter.

Thing that have to change

Right after she took over the business from his mother, Eiko's first impresson was Shose's business model was obsolete. "My mother took over Shiose from my father, and started bridal business. She expanded its sales channel to hotel and she targeted on wedding ceremony," Eiko says. In Japan, bride and bridal customary gave gift to their guests in the end of wedding ceremony, which is usually held in hotel or commercial wedding place. Eiko's mother sold Shiose's confection to hotels and wedding place for the wedding ceremony gift. It was a hit, and 400 hotels and wedding places started business with us. Its business grew rapidly. "But I thought it would not continue, because there was a trend that Japanese family was becoming smaller. In fact, a statistics showed the number of children per household was declining. I strongly thought we had to change," Eiko says. Then she thought retail business was the way to go.

When Eiko took over, Shiose did not have retail stores. "Customers had to go to the headquarter to buy our confections. Those who received our confection at a wedding party checked our address in the wrapping paper and called us to buy some. We answered that we would prepare confection and wait for you. We asked customers to come to us and pick up. It was nonsense. We had to go to places where customer could buy our products easily." Eiko proposed Shiose's management team to enter retail business. But all of them opposed her idea, because the wedding business was stable and did not need to change. Factory also opposed because Shiose's confection was hand-made, and they did not have capacity to make large amounts of orders coming from retail stores. However, Eiko pushed her idea and decided to enter retail business.

She first prepared manufacturing equipment in a small place in a corner of the factory. She assigned a good confectioner to the new retail business and ask him to make confection that fits retail stores. "I had to prepare another manufacturing line not to bother existing business."

Retail business is quite different from wedding. Retail store needs variety of products and factory needs many product lines to support them. The biggest difference was retail store needs Nama-gashi, law Japanese confection. Law confection differs by season, and it requires seasonal taste. Additionally, retail business needs fancy wrapping to distinguish from other retailers. Its first shop was in Matsuya Department store in Ginza. When Eiko accepted the offer from Matsuya, she requested to install a booth where her confectioner could make confections even in the department store. "My father used to say Wagashi tastes the best right after its production. I agreed this, and I requested Matsuya for the booth to provide fresh product." Matsuya allowed it.

"Everything was the first experience for us. I worked on the design of wrapping paper, shop arrangement, naming of new products, and everything. It was tough, but fun as well," says Eiko.

She adds, "We should not change our taste and recipes. But we should adjust the way we do our business – how and where to sell our products, for example. What we have to do is to keep our tradition from generation to generation."

Word to carry

650 years has past since its foundation - it's history is history of Japanese confectionery. Shiose represents the taste of Japanese sweets. Kawashima understands it and she does not prioritize her family's benefit. "We do not think about how much we can profit."

She continues, "Since we are running so long, there is good time and bad time. In bad time, we adjust our life to it, and prepare for next step. We cannot jump from standing position. We need to bend before jump. Bad time is to prepare for jump. Important thing is to continue our business whatever happens."

Kawashima demands her successor that "continue running Shiose, even if you can sell only one piece of cake." Actually, it is the thing her predecessor has been preserving. The only thing that is needed to continue is to produce good confection solemnly with belief. As long as Shiose keeps it, someone in the future will lift the company again. Kawashima has been saying her successor, who is her son, not to have any ambition and just focus on producing good confectionery.
In Shiose, there is a word that has been taken over from the 31st owner, Toshikazu Watanabe, who is said to be a real master of confectionery. He told his employees "not to decrease quality of product and keep its traditional recipie," and current Shiose staffs have the words in their mind and always they are trying to keep it.

 
     
 
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