Dispatches from the Yatsuhashi War

A war has broken out in Kyoto. It's not the kind fought by samurai with swords in ages past, but it's just as divisive and ugly. Maybe even more, as Kyotoites take their confections pretty seriously.

That's right, this battle is raging over sweets. Specifically yatsuhashi, a flavorful treat that comes in a variety of styles and flavors.

Souvenirs are a big deal in Kyoto, and none are more sought after by Japanese visitors than wagashi (Japanese sweets). Among wagashi, yatsuhashi stands supreme as the most popular. The Kyoto municipal government reports that at least 40% of domestic tourists return home with a package of these beloved sweets. Within the wide variety of Kyoto meibutsu (famous local goods), yatsuhashi holds a special place at the top of the pile. Yatsuhashi are THE Kyoto souvenir. Period.

So what are these special treats? Yatsuhashi are available in a few different styles nowadays. The classic version is a hard cookie made from rice flour, sugar, and cinnamon. It has a serious crunch to it similar to a fortune cookie, with the taste of cinnamon mild and not overpowering. The long cookie is bent in a way that evokes the shape of a koto, a traditional horizontal Japanese harp... maybe. (More on this later)

For centuries, Kyoto locals knew how good the soft nama (raw) dough was on its own from sneaking a bite before baking the cookies, but it was difficult to export due to how fast it would harden and spoil. Hard cookies were a necessity in a time before refrigeration and preservatives. It took until the 1960s for yatsuhashi to experience a permanent evolution. As travel become faster and fresh sweets were easier to bring home. A little triangular dough pocket was folded to hold a little dollop of anko sweet red bean paste. This new style of nama yatsuhashi started with flavors like cinnamon and green tea, but soon expanded to include strawberry, mango, banana, and other creative combinations. Personally, I find the lemon ones really refreshing in summer when served chilled, and the chocolate strawberry yatsuhashi are pretty hard to refuse as well. So much for sticking to tradition!

Just like the overwhelming love for yatsuhashi's flavor and texture, passions run high over the history of the snack as well. There are a number of yatsuhashi makers in town, but the main two are Shogoin and Izutsu. The meibutsu shops in Kyoto Station are crammed with yatsuhashi counters, and these two companies are always the best represented. But when one of these two wagashi warriors decides it wants to become top dog, how to they make a move for first place? By arguing over who came first, of course!

Shogoin has maintained for centuries that the saga of yatsuhashi began in the northeast corner of Kyoto. In the 1600s, a small shop outside of Shogoin temple developed the crunchy cookie (allegedly!). They named the shop after the temple and the cookie after Kengyo Yatsuhashi, a blind songwriter famous for playing the koto harp (that's him to the left). He promoted a frugal lifestyle where nothing was wasted, even the last scraps of crunchy, burnt rice at the bottom of the cooking pot. From this he made rice cookies (allegedly!) and it was this legend that inspired the naming of the mass produced variety. Even the gentle curved shape of Shogoin's cookie was a reminder of Yatsuhashi's famous koto harp (wait for it... ALLEGEDLY!)

This tale is an appropriately entertaining origin story and forms the basis for the "since 1689" claim that Shogoin displays on their storefronts and each wrapped package. But in a country where historical pedigree means everything, Izutsu decided it was time to enter the sugary fray with a counterclaim. Enter the lawyers.

Izutsu is suing their rivals for false claims, saying that there is no proof of the 1689 origin story. Furthermore, the 94 year-old director of Izutsu stressed that such "inaccurate information has broader implications for the confectionery industry." Shots fired. They have no evidence that Shogoin was NOT producing the cookies outside of a temple more than 320 years ago, but Izutsu's director says that he finds it "highly unlikely." A solid legal argument if there ever was one, your honor.

To further complicate things, an alternative origin story exists. Izutsu is pushing the idea that the sweets were never connected to a blind musician, and instead were inspired by the wooden planks of a famous bridge in Aichi prefecture. And now Izutsu is pointing at a 1969 Shogoin document that admits they don't know their own founding date. Sounds like Shogoin needs to sift through its archives and find some hard evidence if they want their version of things to stand up to the sweet-toothed critics.

So what does this high fructose fracas mean for the souvenir industry? Expect to see Japanese shoppers taking sides once this story develops, but maybe this is a chance for other yatsuhashi makers to step up their game and take advantage of the situation. Izutsu and Shogoin offer mostly traditional styles, but other companies like Nishio and Otabe get wild with flavors like soda, peach, salt, and English tea. Shoppers looking to not take sides can branch out and try some new varieties, and perhaps the traditional makers will be inspired to come up with some new flavors of their own.

The yatsuhashi war has only just begun, and Kyoto eagerly awaits to see how this plays out (not joking, this is a serious news topic here). If anything, the legal battle shows us how seriously Japanese companies take their reputation as historical entities. In a city steeped in tradition like Kyoto, age and pedigree is everything. Even for something as simple as a cookie. Be sure to try some yatsuhashi - both the cookie and nama varieties - for yourself when visiting Kyoto.

(Full disclosure, I prefer the nama yatsuhashi at Shogoin, but the cookies at Izutsu are slightly more flavorful. And when I'm 94, I hope that I can be comfortably enjoying retirement, not heading a lawsuit over 300 year old cookies.)