Tokyo Treats

A Local Sculptor Keeps Crowds Entertained, And An Ancient Art Alive
Shinri Tezuka makes works of art out of molten sugar.
Shinri Tezuka
Sugar Sculptor; Owner, Asakusa Amezaiku Ameshin

Shinri Tezuka was like any other 20-year-old, trying to figure out what he wanted to do with his life, looking for a job, and searching for a career. By happenstance, he found his calling at a street festival in Tokyo, where he was mesmerized by artisans who had attracted crowds of people to watch them create works of edible art.

He knew of the traditional Japanese folk art, amezaiku, where a molten mixture of candy perched on a stick is skillfully, and quickly, molded into the shape of a bird, fish, or other animal shape, to create a lollipop almost too pretty to eat.

Shinri Tezuka is a self-taught amezaiku artisan, and now teaches others his craft.
Thrilling Spectacle
Disappearing Folk Art

Tezuka watched as the craftsman worked fast, making sure that the mizuame, a syrup made of water, sugar, and potato or rice starch, didn't harden before their masterpieces were finished.

Tezuka decided almost instantaneously that he wanted to become an amezaiku artisan. But becoming a master craftsman wasn't without its trials. What originated as a practice by street vendors in the Tokugawa period around 1603, had become almost obsolete in modern society. Hampered by health regulations put in place in the 1970s, and a lack of consumer interest, the number of artisans left had become so small that there was no school to teach the technique. So Tezuka taught himself.

Goldfish are one of the most popular figurines sold in Tezuka's shop, Asakusa Amezaiku Ameshin.
Fired Up
Making The Sweet Treats

Now, at 28, Tezuka is one of youngest practitioners of amezaiku in Tokyo. At his store, Asakusa Amezaiku Ameshin, inside Tokyo Solamachi at the base of the Tokyo Skytree, his live candy-sculpting performances attract curious onlookers.

To get started, Tezuka heats an electric pot of made-from-scratch mizuame. Then the pressure is on. "First you take the heated ball of candy and mount it on the edge of the stick. You make it into a form using your bare hands and special U-shaped scissors." Tezuka works quickly, as he only has about three to five minutes from the time the candy is taken from the pot until it hardens. “You need to have a feeling for sculpture art because you’re under such pressure,” he says. To finish each creation, decorative touches are applied with paint brushes dipped in organic food colors.

Frogs are one of the figurines that best show off the hard candy's glossy texture, says Tezuka.
Looking Ahead
At The Shape Of Things

Goldfish are the most popular figurines sold in his shop. "The goldfish and the frogs go well with the candy's glossy texture." He believes customers are drawn to those figures because they are closest to the original Tokugawa period creations. “These are the shapes that resonate in their hearts,” says Tezuka.

While he is aware that his devotion to sugar sculpting keeps the tradition alive, Tezuka has a desire to not only preserve amezaiku, but move it forward. "My other objective in life is to launch a project where we assist people in connecting each other in a way that helps preserve wonderful Japanese handicrafts and their techniques, which, as of now, are becoming extinct."

Local Recommendations

The Perfect Tour Of Tokyo With Amezaiku Artisan, Shrini Tezuka

Tezuka has managed to revive an ancient folk art on the verge of extinction, so it is perhaps no surprise that in the midst of a very modern city, the artist spends his time in search of Japanese heritage. From the best places to catch a sumo contest, to his favorite kabuki theaters, and serene bath houses, here Tezuka shares his favorite hometown hangouts.

Spirit Of Sumo

Where To Catch A Match

“Sumo is so much more than wrestling,” says Tezuka. On his days off, you'll find him at the place for sumo matches in Tokyo: Ryogoku Kokugikan Sumo Hall (1-3-28 Yokoami, Sumida; +81-3-3623-5111). Visitors particularly interested in observing the best of Japanese wrestling might consider planning a trip to Tokyo to coincide with one of the three Grand Sumo tournaments taking place in January, May, and September. For an authentic experience reserve a masu-seki box seat, where spectators sit cross-legged on the floor. To get one of these seats, you must plan in advance as they sell out quickly. Upper area arena seating offers good views as well, and individual chairs.
If you're in town during the off season, sumo stable tours are available in the Ryogoku neighborhood, with about 12 to 15 stables within blocks of each other. Visit wrestler training facilities, where guests can watch a morning training session. Kasugano Beya (1-7-11 Ryogoku, Sumida; no telephone), is the oldest, dating back to the 18th century, and has been home to several high-ranking champions throughout the years. Have your concierge arrange a sumo stable visit through a tour guide; proper etiquette is of the utmost importance during tours.


Kabuki Performance Art At Its Finest

Kabuki has been around for almost four centuries, and the Kabukiza Theatre (4-12-15 Ginza, Chuo; +81-3-3545-6800), is one of the city’s best venues to watch a colorful production. Destroyed and reconstructed five times since its opening in 1889, the theater has succumbed to a fire, an earthquake, and shelling during World War II. In 2010, it was torn down. Rebuilt in 2013, it now adjoins a 29th-floor skyscraper, where on the fifth floor you'll find an open-air garden and a gallery devoted to the history of the art. In the costume area, visitors can dress in dramatic garb, and have photos taken. The theatrical performances themselves are lengthy—typically four hours—and made up of several acts, so to get the flavor of the show without the commitment, buy a single-act ticket, hitomaku mi seki, where spectators watch from an upper gallery.

Shinbashi Enbujo (6-18-2 Ginza, Chuo; +81-3-3541-2600), another celebrated theater, is the place to experience Super Kabuki, a combination of the traditional spectacle reimagined with modern pop culture influences. Shinbashi is known in particular for its contemporary music, special effects, aerial artistry, and over-the-top costumes.

Timeless Tokyo

Where History Comes Alive

Immerse yourself in Tokyo's past at the Edo-Tokyo Museum (1-4-1 Yokoami, Sumida; +81-3-3626-9974) in the Ryogoku district. Because of its odd appearance—the building looks like it was modeled after a Transformer robot—the museum became an instant landmark when it opened in 1993. The permanent exhibitions are educational, yes, but also staggering in their depth and scale. Case in point: original artifacts sit side-by-side with 55 life-size replicas of entire buildings, including a full-scale reproduction of the original Nihonbashi Bridge, an iconic landmark, famous for its numerous depictions in Utagawa Hiroshige's woodblock prints, with its stunning views of the Edo castle and Mt. Fuji in the distance. "The museum is the place to not only learn, but feel Japanese culture and history come alive," says Tezuka.
At Kingyozaka (5-3-15 Hongo, Bunkyo; +81-3-3815-7088), literally "goldfish hill," the Japanese fascination with goldfish takes center stage. Equal parts farm, pet shop, and quirky neighborhood café near the University of Tokyo, there are at least a dozen different types of the revered fish for sale. Try your hand at kingyo-sukui, a Japanese carnival game where participants use a thin paper or netted scoop to try to gather as many goldfish as possible before the ladle breaks. Inside the restaurant, tiny fishbowls decorate most tables, while some have mini aquariums built in. A must at the café is their signature beef curry, and, for dessert, a deliciously sweet almond tofu pudding.

Masters Of Their Craft

Where To Explore Artisanry, Old And New

Underneath elevated railroad tracks in the Ueno neighborhood is 2k540 Aki-Oka Artisan (5-9 Ueno, Taito; +81-3-6806-0254) an artisanal shopping center of sorts, where groups of craftsmen sell their wares, and urge visitors to get involved as well. Tezuka explains that in Toyko's old town district of Shitamachi, which Ueno is part of, generations of craftsmen have set up shop. "This is the theme at 2K540, which is a combination of workshops, cafes, stores, and other craft studios. Here, you can enjoy real Japanese artisanship," says Tezuka. To appreciate a different kind of grass roots talent, worship the artistry at the Shibamata Taishakuten (7-10-3 Shibamata, Katsushika; +81-3-3657-2886). The Buddhist temple, built in 1629, is adorned with intricate woodcarvings, which depict stories from the sacred Lotus Sutra scriptures. While there are other carvings throughout, the most famous are the ten "prayer wall" panels.

Taking The Waters

Tokyo's Best Bath Houses

While Tokyo Skytree Tower has imparted a modern aura to the northeastern Sumida district, the landscape still includes a staple of Japanese culture: bath houses. After working long hours, Tezuka heads to a local public bath for a relaxing soak. In Sumida's Honjo ward, Daikokuyu (3-12-14, Yokokawa, Sumida; +81-3-3622-6698), using water from a natural hot spring discovered sixty years ago, invites guests to "have a hot bath, while looking up at the Skytree," from its outdoor relaxation pool that offers a view of the Tokyo landmark. Inside Araiyu (2-8-7, Honjo, Sumida; +81-3-3622-0740), Mt. Fuji-inspired murals make visitors feel as if they've ventured out of the hectic city. Seek out the aromatic baths, where the herbal scent of the water changes daily. At Ryogoku Yuya Edoyu (1-5-8 Kamezawa, Sumida; +81-3-3621-2611), more spa than bathhouse, take a soak anytime of day or night–they're open 24 hours for a calming session after a night out on the town.