Admit it–everybody loves sweet treats, whether they are cream-filled Western-style delights, refined Japanese confections, mass-market goodies stacked on convenience store shelves, or the cakes your mother used to make. But best of all are those known as meika in Japanese–the sweets that have pleased local palates for generations. Kyushu has a wealth of these meika, each with its own story. Tracing the history of these confections reveals a background that is a rich tapestry of tradition and taste.
They are nostalgic reminders of the past for Japanese and a fresh taste of Kyushu for people from overseas. Let’s nibble a bit at the history of the treats the locals have been snacking on for centuries.
Birthplace of manju
Manju are very popular treats found in shops throughout Japan. Originally made in China, they were brought to Japan through Hakata. The monk Shoichi Kokushi founded the Shoten temple in Hakata Ward in the 13th century. He learned how to make sake manju while studying Zen Buddhism in China.
After returning to Japan, he collected alms near Nishi Park. In return for his kind reception at a teahouse, the monk gave them the manju recipe. This teahouse was the first Japanese establishment to make and sell manju. Shoichi Kokushi turned out to be a pioneer of Hakata culture. He also was responsible for teaching people how to make the Hakata kakiyama (large portable shrines used in festivals) and somen.
Kyushu’s Sugar Road
The old Nagasaki Road linking Nagasaki with Kokura also was known as the Sugar Road. Confections and other elements of Western culture were brought from Portugal to Nagasaki, where they flourished. When Japan entered its period of isolation in the Edo period, Dejima in Nagasaki was the sole point of contact with the outside world.
At that time, sugar could be obtained only in Dejima, and it was both extremely rare and highly prized. It was shipped on the Nagasaki Road to be offered as gifts to the Bakufu government. It also was given to people along the road in appreciation for favors. The sugar was then used to make sweets, and Kyushu’s long history of meika began on this sugar boulevard with large volume sugar imports.
Confections and coal
The Chikuho coal fields began to flourish at the dawn of the 20th century. Many shops offering manju, confections, and other sweets opened in the Iizuka area. The miners craved something sweet to restore their flagging energy. The harsh working conditions in the mines meant that workers risked their lives daily, so the miners developed a cavalier attitude toward thrift. This had the twin benefits of spurring the local economy and boosting the quality of these sweets.Mitsui, Mitsubishi, and other large companies located in the area, generating a brisk traffic to and from Tokyo and Osaka. Thus, the flavor of Chikuho sweets became renowned nationwide, and rose to greater heights.
Originally published in Fukuoka Now magazine (fn63 Mar. 2004)