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July 15, 2011

Shogoin Yatsuhashi (Kyoto Guide)

Shogoin, near the temple of the same name, is the place where one Kyoto's most famous sweets originated. The year was 1689 when Genkakudo (“Hall of the Black Crane”) in front of Shogoin Temple began selling a sweet called “yatsuhashi.” This sweet was shaped like the bridge of a koto, the 13-stringed zither, and named after Yatsuhashi Kengyo (1614-1685), Japan's most famous koto player and composer, who had died just a few years earlier.

[The modern Shogoin Yatsuhashi Sohonten shop]

Kengyo had spent his last years as a koto teacher in Kyoto and was buried at the cemetery of the Kurodani Temple (officially called Konkaikomyoji), on the hill beyond Shogoin. In fact, the original yatsuhashi shop (there soon were competitors!) alludes with its name to both Kurodani and the zither: “black” is found back in the temple name (“Black valley”) and the sound of the zither was often compared to the singing of a crane – therefore “Hall of the Black Crane.” The name is now Shogoin Yatsuhashi Sohonten.

The sweets were made only with pounded rice, cinnamon (for the particular taste) and sugar. Baked, they are quite hard, like rice crackers, but much thinner. These durable sweets became popular items for tourists to take home and the name “Shogoin yatsuhashi” is now known nationwide. It is a product that easily travels, even if you live abroad - it keeps for three months.

[Shogoin Temple]

That is not true for the other type of yatsuhashi sweet that was developed much later. This is the unbaked variant called “hijiri,” first sold in 1960. The triangular pieces of folded pounded rice usually contain a filling of red bean jam and may be colored green with powdered tea. They are quite delicious and easy on the teeth, but do not keep very long. The name “hijiri” was taken from neighboring Shogoin Temple, which as one of the head temples of the Shugendo sect is the leader of groups of “hijiri” or "holy men," the designation for the so-called "ascetic mountain priests."