Kyoto has innumerable souvenirs to choose from. Yet, one souvenir continues to outrank the rest. Yatsuhashi is one of the most popular souvenirs from Kyoto. Some studies have shown that over 40% of the tourists visiting Kyoto, Japanese or otherwise, take yatsuhashi back with them as a souvenir for their loved ones.
Yatsuhashi is a traditional sweet, made from glutinous rice flour (mochi) and sugar. What gives it its distinctive taste is the addition of nikki or cinnamon.
There are two versions of the story of how it came into being. Some believe that it was invented by Yatsuhashi Kenkyo, a musician from the Edo period. Yatsuhashi, a blind musician, is said to have been a man careful with his resources. He taught people not to waste any food, not even the rice that sticks to the pot whilst cooking. He suggested that people use those rice leftovers to make rice crackers. When he passed away, the people living in his town created a sweet in the shape of a Japanese harp (koto) to honor this wise man.
Some others believe that the sweet was first introduced in Ise Monogatari (Tales of Ise). But the former origin story related to the musician Yatsuhashi is more widely believed.
What are the different types of Yatsuhashi?
There are three main types of yatsuhashi. The original one uses the base mixture of glutinous rice flour, sugar and cinnamon. This dough is baked and ends up in the shape of a koto.
The second kind of yatsuhashi is steamed and cut. This is called nama yatsuhashi or raw yatsuhashi. It became popular some decades ago.
The third kind is aniri-nama-yatsuhashi in which filling is added to the yatsuhashi. This filling is typically red bean paste, but other flavors have recently become popular such as matcha, brown sugar, strawberry, plum, sweet potato, cherry blossom and even chocolate.
The yatsuhashi have seen changes in their shape over the years. The most popular are the standard triangular shaped yatsuhashi. But these days, one can also find sticks, flowers, bags and others. These sticks may have the flavor of chocolate, black soybean paste and even green tea cake dough.
When did Yatsuhashi start becoming popular as a souvenir?
Most imagine a triangular shape when they think of yatsuhashi, but the original yatsuhashi had the shape of an arch.
The baked arch-like version of yatsuhashi is said to have been sold to visitors and pilgrims on their way to the famous Shogoin, a Buddhist temple in Kyoto. These came to be called Shogoin yatsuhashi.
The sweet received a prize in the Paris Exposition in 1889. Around this time, the yatsuhashi started gaining popularity amongst Japanese visitors to Kyoto as well as foreigners who visited Japan. Vendors would set up stands outside Kyoto station to sell yatsuhashi to visitors.
The baked version of yatsuhashi could keep for a long time and this longevity helped give this tasty sweet an extra boost in popularity. It has been made by hand for many years and still is in some of the traditional shops of Kyoto.
The Yatsuhashi Origin Wars
The two main traditional yatsuhashi producers in Kyoto are Shogoin and Izutsu. There are several shops selling these sweets in Kyoto, particularly in all its stations, but Shogoin and Izutsu are by far the most popular. In the city of Kyoto, where there is a lot of weight given to tradition and history, the two shops have been arguing about whose claims of being the original yatsuhashi makers holds true.
Shogoin believes that the sweet was developed outside Shogoin temple after Yatsuhashi Kengyo. All its products display the ‘since 1689’ claim. Izutsu on the other hand, believes that Shogoin has no proof about this origin. Izutsu believes that the sweet had no relation to the koto musician and is instead made in the shape of a wooden bridge in Aichi.
Best Places to Find Yatsuhashi in Kyoto
Lawsuits aside, Shogoin and Izutsu are renowned for their yatsuhashi. If you are in Kyoto, they are worth visiting. Right from the iron plates and the large kettles used in production, there is a lot of care put into how the sweets are produced.
The main store in Gion has a wide selection of yatsuhashi, including their own special variants like yugiri.
The story goes that some famous kabuki performers consulted the shop owners to create a sweet that would please customers who were interested in kabuki. The yatsuhashi “Yugiri” was then born. Yugiri is based on characters from a kabuki play, Yugiri Tayu and her lover Isaya Fujiya. A new kind of yatsuhashi in the shape of a net was created and set on stage in the 1940s. That yugiri is sold and can be enjoyed even now.
Shogoin Yatsuhashi Sohonten
Allegedly close to the birthplace of yatsuhashi, this traditional shop still sells the classic versions. Everything from the mochi to the red bean paste is made using specially designed equipment unique to the store.
Honke Nishio Yatsuhashi Main Store
Whilst both Izutsu and Shogoin are quite traditional and focus on the standard yatshuhashi, the other shops that sell yatsuhashi use more popular variants of the flavors and fillings. Honke Nishio is a well-established shop with a long history and experiments widely with the yatsuhashi it sells.
Apart from the traditional flavors and fillings, this shop also uses other varieties for its yatsuhashi – strawberry, chocolate, sesame, banana, matcha and more. The products sometimes even change with the season. For instance, special boxes are released for celebrations such as Valentine’s Day.
Does the Yatsuhashi Live Up to Its Fame as Kyoto’s Representative Souvenir?
Souvenirs can be mementos of someone’s trip, given to someone else. But they can also give the receiver an impression of a faraway land where they may be inspired to visit themselves.
There are many delicious wagashi that have their origins in Kyoto, and each has their own features. To foreign taste buds, Japanese sweets can sometimes feel overly sweet, and texture of the glutinous rice flour can be especially hard to get used. Yatsuhashi can serve as a means of easing your way into the world of wagashi.
The nama yatsuhashi is quite subtle in its appearance, texture and taste. Combined with a cup of hot green tea, the yatsuhashi may perhaps give someone a very brief look into Kyoto’s mysteries and charm.