Sweet shop, Oike Sembei, has been in Shimomura Osamu-san’s family since 1832. What began as a local neighborhood shop has become one of Kyoto’s most illustrious makers of sweets for the Way of Tea.
During the war, in order to widen Oike Boulevard for defense purposes, hundreds of houses and shops were removed. “My family had to pack up and find refuge with other family members,” says Shimomura. The business dried up during the war. After the war, lacking capital and supplies, the Shimomura's joined together with several other sweet makers and opened a shop in the Gion district near Yasaka Shrine. “After a while, my grandfather was able to save some enough money to open our shop here, on the corner of Oike and Teramachi.” Thus the current location of Oike Sembei was born. Now, in addition to the main store, they have concession counters in Takashimaya, Daimaru and Isetan department stores, all here in Kyoto.
Japanese tea-sweets contain no shortening. They are made fresh each day and contain no preservatives and contain mostly rice, azuki beans and sugar. Those sold after the war were much sweeter than they are today. Because of the shortage of food, people wanted sweets to give them some energy. Nowadays, people want less sugar, for health reasons.
Rather than using wax or plastic models to display their sweets in the shop window, all display items are made each day. Wax and plastic somehow do not reflect the beauty of these products.
“I grew up in the house here and was surrounded by our sweet-making crew. My father never spoke to me about one day working here with the family. However. as a child, I would often go for walks with my grandfather. We would meet people he knew wherever we went and he always introduced me as the next generation successor to the company. I came to take it for granted that I would always live and work here.
"I have lots of friends who are the children of sweet makers in Kyoto. Many of them went to work away from home for a few years after college before returning to their families to work permanently, at about age 30. I decided to go right to work here at our shop, right after college. However, just about every one of my friends eventually returned to work in their traditional family businesses. This says a lot for this generation.
"Now I live and work in the same place. I chose to raise my children here in this downtown Kyoto neighborhood, where I grew up.
"Our day begins at 7:00am, when the sweet-making staff members arrive. We open the shop at 8:00am and stay open until 6:00pm, when the staff leaves. I stay around the shop, taking care of details, answering the phone which sometimes rings up until 9:00pm, and sometimes going to work-related meetings. It is a long day and the only time that I am not working is at meal time. I probably avoid a lot of stress by not having to commute home. It is a real advantage.
"Some of our products are the same throughout the year. Others retain the same taste, but take on the shapes of various seasonal fruits and flowers the seasons change. One type of sweet, for example, may begin in January as a white block with spots of pink, representing plum blossoms in the snow. Still others are made for just a few weeks each year.
The fact that they produce a seasonally consistent line of sweets with consistent flavor appeals to the families of customers that have been buying their sweets here or generations. “People come here at a particular time of year and enjoy the same sweets as they did when they were children. Some come in order to introduce their favorite childhood sweets to their grandchildren.
"Though our line remains very much the same, there is room to occasionally introduce new items. It is my dream to create something new for our business, that I can pass on to my children when they take over the business, someday. Making a new sweet is a big challenge. There are several hundred sweet makers in Kyoto. It is hard to think of something new that someone has not already tried. But, I persevere.
The connection amongst not only fellow sweet makers but amongst fellow trades people of all kinds is very strong here in Kyoto. “There is a mutual support, and we learn from each other. This support is especially strong amongst young people like myself. We are still learning and need to be open to new ideas and opinions. Later, when the responsibility of running the businesses will be on our shoulders, that weight may not allow us the luxury of such a free exchange.”
When I asked Shimomura-san why they do not have a photo pamphlet, he said, “Photo’s tend to promote the most artistic looking sweets. However, some of their simpler looking sweets are equally as delicious, but these would become less popular as the photographic image would favor the more colorful items."
In Collaboration with Photographer, Helen Hasenfeld
© Photos by Helen Hasenfeld
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