Japanese Tea & Wagashi, A Match Made in Little Tokyo

A few weeks ago I made my way over to the Japanese American Museum in Little Tokyo for the Los Angeles International Tea Festival.  In its third year, the festival showcases the best and most unique finds in LA’s ever-growing tea scene.  There were a host of vendors this year, including the Chado Tea Room, Ito En, and Harney and Sons.  The festival is a great place to learn about brewing tea, cooking with tea, tea and health, and even how tea is grown.  It’s also a great place to learn more about tea in the context of Asian and Japanese culture.  You can even watch Chanoyu in practicethe ritualistic and fascinating art of the Japanese Tea Ceremony.

Tea, modern in practice and steeped in Asian tradition

These gift shop finds at the Japanese American Museum make me happy

You can find these “Generational Teas” at the Japanese American Museum in LA.  Each tea blend honors a specific generation of Japanese Americans, from Issei (1st generation) to Gosei (5th generation)

On my way out of the tea festival, I decided to do a some shopping (and food-seeking) on 1st Street and walked straight over to Fugetsu-Do, a Japanese confectionary that specializes in wagashi.  This unassuming, quaint shop has stood the test of time.  In fact, it’s considered the oldest shop in LA’s Little Tokyo.

Wagashi are sweet, dense artful little Japanese cakes created specifically to be paired with Japanese green teas.  These creations are rarely served as desserts in Japan.  Instead, they are enjoyed as a light snack or refreshment or during a tea ceremony.  Literally translated, “wa” refers to “Japan” and “gashi” refers “sweets.”  Many wagashi reflect natural themes like birds, plants, and fruits, taking inspiration from classical poetry or art. These beautiful small cakes are typically made with ingredients like rice flour, agar-agar, or bean paste, and rarely contain dairy.

An unassuming storefront on 1st Street in Little Tokyo

Artfully crafted wagashi in many shapes and colors

Since 1903 this historic little shop has made all kinds of wagashi like mochi (japanese rice cake), manju (flour cakes with sweet red bean paste), and dango (little sweet rice ball dumplings).  Even after being sent to internment camps during WWII after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the owners of this family owned business–the Kito Family–ventured back to Los Angeles to reestablish their business.

Fugetsu-Do is a must-go if you are ever passing through Little Tokyo.  Like a sip of tea, a bite of one of these beauties is like a step back in time.  The shop owner, Brian Kito, is always resisting the idea of renovating the store as he strives to preserve the shop’s historic charm and timeless Japanese style.  Christmas and New Year’s are busy times for Fugetsu-Do, so if you want to try some of their beautiful and unique treats, fall might be just the time to do that!

And if you want to make your own mochi at home, here is my recipe for Pumpkin Butter Mochi, a recipe that pays homage to the seasonal wagashi of autumn.

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