The Museeum team has been incredibly lucky to travel extensively around Japan and experience its authentic culture through visiting various museums. Wherever we went we encountered Japan's phenomenon of 'retrofuturism' and the juxtapositions present in many aspects of life: the ancient traditions of craftsmanship and the aspiration for innovations, adoration for French pastries and the art of wagashi (traditional Japanese sweets), and of course the new generation of people trying to change the future of the country taking only the best from its past.

A perfect example of a museum, which captures all of the above, is the Yamatane Museum of Art in Tokyo, Japan’s first museum specializing in Nihonga (Japanese style painting) with more than 1800 art objects in its exquisite collection. The Museum first opened its doors in July of 1966 and moved to a new building in 2009. This date marked the start of a new era at the Yamatane Museum of Art when its director, Dr. Taeko Yamazaki, decided to look for uncanny ways of enhancing visitors' experiences and linking it with Japanese traditions. It is worth mentioning that Japanese culture is arguably one of the most sensorial in the world and according to traditional philosophy can only be fully grasped when all of the senses are at their peak. The Yamatane Museum chose to concentrate on mixing together ‘see’ and ‘taste’ by offering visitors the chance to enjoy traditional sweets, wagashi, from 'Kikuya' confectionary, inspired by the paintings from the exhibition on view, at the museum cafe.

Yamatane Museum of Art
Yamatane Museum of Art

The 'Kikuya' confectionary, well-known wagashi specialists in Japan, now in their third generation, has been producing its edible masterpieces of incredible taste and design since 1935. Wagashi is produced with natural ingredients such as beans and grains, seasonal nuts and fruits, and agar, etc. Seasonality is key to Japanese culture and traditions and plays an important role in visual representation and flavors.

When the Yamatane Museum of Art approached 'Kikuya' with this unusual idea to offer sweet pairings to five exhibition artworks they thought it was something very challenging but definitely worth exploring. Since then more than 170 wagashi were produced and there are a lot more to come. In particular, the 'Kikuya' confectionary and the Museum were looking forward to celebrating the Museum's 50th anniversary in 2016 with some special creations.

Museeum had a conversation with the Yamatane Museum of Art’s chief curator Minako Takahashi about their unique approach to experiencing art while, of course, enjoying some delicious wagashi and fragrant Japanese tea.

How did the museum come up with this idea?

When we designed the museum’s new building in Hiroo (we moved from Chiyoda-ku to our current place in 2009), our museum director, Dr. Taeko Yamazaki, focused on the concept that the museum should not only be a place where curators show the art works, but also where visitors enjoy art in various ways and from various aspects. She came up with the idea of “regarding art as a part of life”. The museum started to produce fine art gifts inspired by the exhibitions and the changing seasons in the museum shop, together with a menu of special Japanese confections (wagashi) in the café.

We hope that visitors will feel at home in our museum, develop a strong connection to the artworks they see in exhibitions, and enjoy talking about it with their friends or family members, and visit our museum repeatedly.

We will be most pleased if, through their encounters with Nihonga in this museum, visitors will not only enjoy a richly rewarding experience but also rediscover Japanese culture. We believe Wagashi (Japanese sweets) and Nihonga have a lot in common, in terms of artistic beauty, natural colors, natural ingredients, seasonal motifs, and traditional aspects.

The confectioner 'Kikuya' and our museum have been in a good relationship since we used to have our old museum’s building in Kabuto cho when we had a tea ceremony room where tea ceremony parties were held. 'Kikuya' has a shop in Aoyama, and they do not have a cafe space there, so our museum cafe is the only place where people can order and taste the specially made wagashi.

We believe Wagashi (Japanese sweets) and Nihonga have a lot in common, in terms of artistic beauty, natural colors, natural ingredients, seasonal motifs, and traditional aspects.

What has been the visitors reaction so far?

Very good. There are many fans of our wagashi. There are some very enthusiastic visitors who visit every exhibition and buy every kind of wagashi. Some people come to the museum, look around the exhibition, and then, order all of the wagashi and share them with their friends. Some people buy them as a souvenir to their family or friends, or a gift to someone special. Visitors often tell us that we are the only museum, which offers such an interesting challenge to produce wagashi inspired by artwork. They often say our wagashi is another piece of art in this museum.

How do you usually work with the patissier? Does the curator provide guidance to the patissier as to which artworks to choose for inspiration?

Firstly, our museum curators choose about 10 artworks from those to be exhibited in the show and and provide Kikuya’s master with printed images of these works. Then, they select about 5-6 paintings and make the first samples inspired by these paintings. Dr. Yamazaki, our director, curators, and the staff in charge of the café menu, discuss the samples and send our feedback to 'Kikuya'. Sometimes, we ask them to reconsider colors, shapes, motifs, ingredients or toppings. We do this exchange between our museum’s staff and 'Kikuya' 2-3 times to brush them up, then finally complete 5 wagashi for each exhibition.

What have been the most popular sweets among the visitors so far?

We asked 'Kikuya' which one is the best seller among past wagashi, and they told us, since they did not count the number of wagashi sold in the past exhibition, they did not know the exact number. However, it seems that whenever they add “Chiri-tubaki” (the wagashi inspired by the Hayami Gyoshu’s Camellia Petals Scattering [Important Cultural Property], Yamatane Museum of Art) in the menu, they are sold out immediately.

What is your favourite wagashi/artwork pair?

Our director’s favourites (there are two) are: 1. “Honoho” of 2013, which is inspired by Hayami Gyoshu’s most well-known work “Dancing in the Flames” (Important Cultural Property);

2. “Hanagasumi” of 2013, which is inspired by Okumura Togyu’s “Spring in Yoshino”, Yamatane Museum of Art.

My favorite is: 1. “Hatsumomiji” of 2011, which is inspired by Tomitori Fudo’s “Autumnal Tints”.

2. “Tsukiyo-no-umi ” of 2012, which is inspired by Utagawa Hiroshige I’s “Eight Scenic Spots at Kanazawa: Moon of Snow, Moon, and Flower”

I also asked 'Kikuya' the same question, but they said they cannot pick up only one or two because they did their best efforts to complete them so they have their love to all wagashi!

If you could choose any artwork in the world as an inspiration to create a new wagashi, which artwork would it be?

Dr. Yamazaki’s answer to this question is: Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” in the collection of MoMA, New York.

My answer to this question is: Sandro Botticelli’s “La nascita di Venere” or Primavera”, both works in the collection of Galleria degli Uffizi.

Kikuya’s answer to this question is: Takeuchi Seiho’s “Tabby Cat” (Important Cultural Property), Yamatane Museum of Art.

Yamatane Museum of Art
Yamatane Museum of Art