Sunday, May 31, 2009

The End of an Era - The Airy, Pillowy, Handmade Japanese Sweets of Sakura-ya

In this day and age in So Cal, traditional Japanese Confectionery might be considered an acquired taste. While Mochi Ice Cream has been making inroads across America, items such as traditional Mochi (Pounded Sticky Rice Sweets) and Manju (another variety of Sweets with an exterior made of Flour that can be Steamed, Baked, etc.) are nowhere near as common. And finding a real Kashiya (Sweets Shop) that still makes their Japanese confections by hand is rarer still.

So it's quite unfortunate that when one looks up at the old, weather-beaten sign for Sakura-ya, there's a good chance this gem of a Sweets Shop will be bypassed for the newer, hipper, pastel-neon-colored "[insert random color] [insert random fruit]" modern Sweet Shop instead.

Originally opened in 1960 by Masayasu Fujita and his wife, Yoshiye Fujita, Sakura-ya has survived for nearly half a century(!), and is now in the hands of their sons, Mas Fujita and Yuki Fujita (the sign and storefront have remained intact, unchanged from when their parents first opened the shop). Their father learned the craft of making Mochi and Manju at the early age of 15 years old, when he apprenticed under a local Sweets maker in Japan. He taught the craft to both of his sons, Mas and Yuki, who now carry on the family tradition by waking up every morning and handmaking all the Mochi and Manju sweets for the day.

Walking inside Sakura-ya feels like a time warp to a much earlier era, and the only point of interest is one small, simple glass case next to the cash register with handwritten signs describing each traditional Japanese Sweet. There's no glitz or glamor, just an array of ~10+ types of freshly made Japanese Sweets (most of which are gone by mid-afternoon (having learned the hard way over the years:)).

On this visit, I order one of each item and head over to share these wonderful creations with some dear friends. (^_^)

During each month of May, Sakura-ya makes a seasonal sweet known as Kashiwa Mochi (Mochi wrapped in Kashiwa (Oak Leaf)) in celebration of Kodomo no Hi (Children's Day, a Japanese holiday in the first week of May).

Unlike the regular Mochi, Mas and Yuki make the Kashiwa Mochi with regular Rice Flour (instead of Sweet Rice Flour), resulting in a denser, heartier offering. The Oak Leaf doesn't impart as intense a fragrance as I'd hoped (compared to Sakura Mochi, for example). Still, it's a clean, very fresh-tasting result, with the Azuki (Red Bean)'s flavors coming through the most.

Their Ohagi is a sort of inside-out Mochi, with Tsubuan (Whole Azuki Beans cooked and sweetened, non-strained) on the outside, and unpounded, whole Sweet Rice on the inside.

The Tsubuan is outstanding! Since the Azuki Bean isn't strained, it retains its husk and has a great toothsome texture (a more "rustic paste" if you will). It's only lightly sweet, and the balance of the Tsubuan with the tender, moist, whole grain Sweet Rice is fantastic! :)

Their Kiku Manju is another popular choice, with a Pancake-like Batter on the outside that wraps up Mochi, which is filled with Tsubuan (Non-strained, Whole Azuki Bean).

The pancake-like exterior with a bit of the Azuki Bean reminds me of Imagawa-yaki, but this is served at room temperature, and is a bit more dense with the Pounded Rice in the middle.

Their classic White Mochi (Pounded Sticky Rice with Tsubuan filling) is the one offering that compels me to drive over to Sakura-ya no matter where I am in So Cal at the time! It's that good! :)

Biting into a White Mochi is the culinary equivalent of laying down on the softest goose down pillow and stretching out on ultra fine silk sheets in bed on a lazy Sunday morning. Imagine something so soft and tender that it's pillowy and cloud-like.

The use of the non-strained, more rustic Tsubuan is a perfect match here: The Azuki Bean provides the stronger textural contrast to the ultra-silky smooth goodness of the Mochi exterior (which uses a Sweet Rice Flour compared to the regular Rice Flour earlier in the Kashiwa Mochi). This type of handmade offering is truly wonderful in every sense of the word! Perfection. (^_^)

Their Pink Mochi (Pounded Sticky Rice with Shiroan (White Bean)) is just as impressive.

Besides the color difference, the Pink Mochi uses a Shiroan (White Bean)-type filling, with the Fujita brothers using a type of Lima Bean that's been boiled, sweetened and strained. It's less sweet than the strained version of the Azuki Bean, while still retaining its more refined texture, along with the same ultra-silky, airy goodness of the hand-pounded Mochi exterior! :)

Their Orange Mochi uses Tangerine Fruit to give it the color and very mild citrusy scent. When I first tried it, I feared that the citrus flavors would overpower the Mochi itself, but thankfully it's not the case. This is a little larger and thicker than the previous Mochi, but when you bite into it, it's a pure, soft (but dense) block of Mochi with a light, light hint of Tangerine.

On the fresh Manju side, Sakura-ya's Kuri Manju is a Baked Wheat Flour exterior stuffed with Shiroan (Sweetened White Bean filling).

While Kuri Manju is sometimes filled with Chestnut (in Japanese, "Kuri" = "Chestnut"), according to Mas Fujita, it's named as such due to its appearance being similar to roasted chestnuts. The Shiroan filling is just as lightly sweet as it was in the Pink Mochi, but now inside the Baked Wheat Flour shell, it adds a different dimension to the taste. So for those that enjoy silky-smooth textures, the Pink Mochi would be the way to go, or if you prefer a bread/pastry-like texture, then the Kuri Manju would be the choice.

The Inaka Manju is a perforated, Steamed Wheat Flour Sweet filled with Tsubuan (Sweetened, Non-strained, Whole Red Bean filling). This is essentially like a sweet Steamed Bun (Baozi), but lighter and thinner than the Chinese version. The rougher, rustic filling stands up to the steamed exterior really well, and makes for a different type of dessert.

For those that prefer the Azuki Bean filling to be smoother and more refined, Sakura-ya's Green Mochi / Yomogi is the way to go, with the same heavenly Pounded Sticky Rice mixed with chopped up bits of fresh Yomogi (Japanese Mugwort) with a Koshian (Sweetened Azuki Bean, Strained / Filtered) filling.

The bits of Yomogi leaf add a very subtle herbal, spring-like note, but it's nothing too distracting to the overall Sweet. The Koshian is a very refined, super-smooth distillation of their Azuki Beans, and unlike the Tsubuan (that has the husks and most of the Azuki Bean's original texture intact), here, it gets transformed into a very fine paste filling. Also, perhaps because there's less Bean (husk, etc.), it tastes quite a bit sweeter, with the sugar coming to the forefront.

Two newer offerings from Sakura-ya include the Maruyaki Manju Chocolate and the Maruyaki Manju Peanut. Both are Baked Wheat Flour exteriors with Tsubuan filling and either Chocolate Chips or Peanuts on top.

At first glance it may seem a bit gimmicky, but the chunkier, less sweet Azuki Bean filling pairs surprisingly well with the Chocolate and the baked exterior.

For a bit more of a fragrant, nuttier item, try the Kinako Mochi, which is their wonderful, soft Pounded Sticky Rice with Koshian (Smooth, Strained Azuki Bean filling), but instead of just a silky dusting of Katakuriko (Japanese Potato Starch) - nothing wrong with that :) - the Kinako Mochi is powdered with Kinako (Toasted Soybean Powder), which really lends a beautiful, toasty, nutty aroma that's understated.

Their White Manju (Steamed Wheat Flour Sweet with Koshian (Smooth, Strained Azuki Bean) filling) is probably their most underwhelming Sweet.

It's similar to their Inaka Manju, except instead of being perforated with holes and filled with the more rough and rustic Tsubuan filling, this is a Steamed Bun, like a traditional Chinese Baozi, with the smoother Koshian filling.

Finally, their Imo Manju is another of the traditional Japanese sweets made here that's named based on appearance rather than ingredients: "Imo" usually means "Potato" in Japanese, but here the Imo Manju doesn't contain any actual Potato, but is named because it's supposed to resemble a fresh baked Sweet Potato.

The Imo Manju has a golden-brown Baked Wheat Flour outer crust, with their Shiroan (Sweetened White Bean) filling, along with Cinnamon and Sesame Seeds. The result is a starchy consistency that is surprisingly like a mild Sweet Potato, but more fragrant with the Cinnamon accents and Sesame Seeds.

Service has been simple and straightforward during every visit I've had over the years: Simply pick out what Sweets you want (or ask if you have questions), and they'll wrap things up and ring up the total on the spot. :)

And of course, the price has always been really fair: Every Sweet on their regular rotation is $1, except the Kashiwa Mochi (Oak Leaf Mochi) which is $1.05. That's ridiculously fair for fresh, handmade Mochi that's made daily with the Fujita's family tradition.

Sakura-ya is one of the rare Sweets Shops in Southern California that still makes all their traditional Japanese Sweets daily, by hand. The Kashiya - the traditional Japanese Sweets Shop - is a rare and dying breed. While owners Mas Fujita and Yuki Fujita learned how to make Mochi and Manju from their parents, Sakura-ya will most likely be ending when the brothers retire. Mas has no children and brother Yuki has two children who have no interest in running the family business. Mas also mentions that demand for traditional Japanese Sweets has been on a steady decline over the recent years (not just due to the economy). He feels that the younger generation is no longer interested in handmade Japanese Sweets like this. :(

There was a note of sadness when this was related to me, and I can't help but silently weep for the loss of a beautiful skill and the delicious Japanese Sweets when the brothers retire. In the meantime, I know I'll be cherishing each fluffy, pillowy, dreamy handmade White Mochi, Pink Mochi and Kinako Mochi (amongst other things) each time I go to Sakura-ya, all the way until the last day it opens. This will be a great loss for So Cal when it closes.

Rating: 8.1 (out of 10.0)

16134 S. Western Ave.
Gardena, CA 90247
Tel: (310) 323-7117

* Cash or Check Only *

Hours: Mon, 9:00 a.m. - 6:00 p.m.
Wed - Sat, 9:00 a.m. - 6:00 p.m.
Sun, 9:00 a.m. - 4:00 p.m.
Closed Tuesdays.


keri said...

This almost made me cry. This is hands down the most amazing place to get mochi/manju in all of southern California. I worked here during my high school years and fell in love with the process of making mochi. Mas and Yuki were so patient and taught us even how to make some (not sure if they were ever used!) It was a little family...each person who worked there was handpicked by a former worker.

The simplicity of the mochi/manju made it the best. No frills, no fluff. Just honest to goodness delectable treats.

I always knew that they may be the last of the line. But, to read it in writing is heartbreaking.

Thank you for sharing this!

Mama said...

Great post! I love traditional Japanese sweets such as these.

And you're right - it is rather unfortunate that these places are becoming harder and harder to find.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Keri,

Thank you for sharing your story about Sakura-ya. I'm touched and happy to hear about you learning a bit about the Mochi-making process from Mas and Yuki during your high school years.

They will be missed. (;_;)

Exile Kiss said...

Hi pink,

Thank you. If you've never been to Sakura-ya it's definitely worth a try. And at a measly $1 for each of their handmade Sweets, it's a bargain. (^_^)

Mama said...

Exile, I have never been before! It is definitely on my must-try list. :)

Exile Kiss said...

Hi pink,

Let me know if you end up going! I hope you enjoy it. :)

Pink Foodie said...

I'm sad I didn't hear about this gem sooner. The Tsubuan looks amazing along with everything else. I am a huge fan of Japanese sweets and will be heading over there asap. Thank you for sharing.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Pinkfoodie,

Definitely give their White Mochi a try (along w/ Ohagi, Pink Mochi, Kinako Mochi and uh, a few other things :).

Let me how the visit went! :)

Joann said...

Thanks for the great detailed post with pictures. these definitely look like a bargain at $1 each!!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Joann,

Thank you. :) It's definitely a bargain at only $1 per Handmade Mochi and Manju. I hope you like them. :)

gourmetpigs said...

How sad, I hope they're not closing just yet :< I'll make a point of coming here next time I'm in the area (which is not that rare these days, and it is partly because of your blog, Exile Kiss!)

Exile Kiss said...

Hi burumun,

I hope you make it down there before they close for good! (;_;) It's quite sad, and a loss for So Cal when they finally retire.

Let me know your visit goes. Thanks. :)

gordonbiers said...

Do you happen to know exactly when they are closing? I want to try it before it's gone forever. btw, what kind of camera do you use to take your pictures. They are always really clear and in focus. Makes your blog one of the best imo.

George said...

OMG, first Tin Sing, now Sakura? Oh no, the best of Gardena is slowly going away. I've been going to Sakura for decades. Even when I moved away from Gardena, I stopped by everytime I was in town.

I've been to many manju shops, including Mikawaya in Pacific Square, Fugetsu-do in downtown LA and Yasukochi's in San Francisco, but none of them even come close to the flavor and most of all the delicate texture of Sakura's manju.

Like many things in my life, knowing that it will go away soon makes me cherish and appreciate it that much more.

One interesting side note: I found a manju place in San Jose, California called Shuei-Do that was almost as good as Sakura. When I talked to the owners, they said that they actually learned their technique from the folks at Sakura! So Sakura's legacy continues indeed!

The Food Librarian said...

If there are typos in this comment, itis because tears are streaming down my face. Oh my gosh. I worked at Sakura-ya in high school, and the Fujitas are the nicest family in the world. This pains me so. Nothing is better than Sakura-ya mochi.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Gordon,

I don't know the exact date of their closing; I felt it might be too forward on such a sad subject to ask him. But they look like older gentlemen so I think it might be sooner rather than later.

I'm using a simple Canon, nothing special. (^_^;; Thanks!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi George,

Thanks for the info on Shuei-do. Very nice to know they learned their Manju making ways from Sakura-ya! :)

Exile Kiss said...

Hi The Food Librarian,

Thank you for sharing your touching story! :( I had no idea Sakura-ya touched so many people's lives. Now I wish I worked at Sakura-ya over the summers to learn more about Mochi from the Fujita brothers.

Anonymous said...

They are not closing for a very long time. I just called them, thank goodness. He said, 'Maybe in 20 years.'

Exile Kiss said...

Hi justJENN,

That's good to know. Thanks for broaching the subject with them. Talking with Yuki-san (and seeing the elderly appearance) I feared it would be much sooner than that. I'm glad to hear they're willing to work past normal U.S. retirement age for the love of the kashiya! It's still unfortunate that they have no one to pass on their Mochi-making craft to. :(

Anonymous said...

Wow, I've travelled to Japan for several times...always trying traditonal sweets, esp. manju and mochi, not ever knowing that there's a place in the South Bay (where I grew up) that actually handmades such delectable sweets. I definitely need to go to Sakura-ya for a visit.

Thank you for this important post.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Anon,

Thanks for your comments. Yah, Sakura-ya is a small, unassuming shop and its location in a quieter, slower part of town doesn't help. I hope you enjoy the visit; please let me know how it goes. :)

k.dee said...

Hi! I work just a couple miles south on Western. I often drive up the street heading for Pacific Square, and whenever I saw Sakura-ya, I would wonder what the store, and "manju," was about (I'm not of Japanese descent). Thanks to the old-school storefront would even wonder whether it was actually still in business despite the OPEN sign in the window.

Anyway, after stumbling upon your post, I was really intrigued. I have had mochi (store-bought) before, so I tried their white mochi after reading your review of it. I just assumed you were exaggerating for effect ... but your description is DEAD-FREAKIN'-ON!!!

Thank you for such a beautiful AND accurate review. :-)

BTW, each item apparently costs $1.05 now. Not that it suddenly because overpriced or anything!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi k.dee,

Thanks for your report back. I'm *so* happy that you enjoyed Sakura-ya's legendary White Mochi. :) Isn't it just absolutely delicious? That reminds me that I have to go back soon... :)

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