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Food of Japan: Learn and Enjoy

USAGIYA since 1950

Time-Honored Shops - Japan’s Hidden Treasures by Mr. Shoku-iku, Yukio Hattori Series

May 01, 2016

Usagiya's generously sized dorayaki(¥190 each; takeout only) pack plenty of azuki jam between two soft outer cakes. As they typically sell out by late afternoon each day, it's a good idea to place an order by calling ahead.

text by Michiko Watanabe / photographs by Toshio Sugiura / English text by Susan Rogers Chikuba

My weakness for sweet bean paste will come as no surprise to regular readers of this column. I love this wholesome azuki jam in all the ways it’s served—slathered on kusadango rice cakes, frozen as ogura aisu, or stuffed inside dorayaki pancakes. This month I spoke with Taeko Seyama of Usagiya, the family-run business that created dorayaki.

Timeless Wagashi Favorites

There are three Usagiya shops in Tokyo, and we’re often asked which is the main one. In fact they’re all independently run offshoots of the business my grandfather started in Ueno in 1913. His original trade was in candles, but as more homes in the city became wired for electricity, he decided to switch over to something for which there’d always be a demand—sweets!

My mother and her brothers all worked in the Ueno shop from a young age. One of those uncles opened the Nihonbashi Usagiya after World War II, when he returned from his overseas deployment. My mother worked there for a time, and then opened a third Usagiya in Nishi-Ogikubo in 1950, joining forces with another returned soldier who had been with the Ueno shop. Sugar, beans, and rice were hard to come by in those days, but my mother would use no substitutes, insisting on the traditional recipes. 

Taeko Seyama's mother, Ryu, stands in front of the small shop she opened in 1950 in Tokyo's Nishi-Ogikubo district. She moved it to the present location in 1957.


Despite those difficulties, Nishi-Ogikubo was a place where many literati lived, and our offerings found a good following there. In 1957 she moved to a larger space here in Asagaya, choosing a north-facing shop as there was no refrigeration in those days.

Today, my younger brother works here with me. Including parttimers we have 35 people on staff, but even so it’s all we can do to keep up with the orders. Many people associate us with dorayaki, but in fact we’ve always made a range of traditional sweets, including rice cakes and seasonal wagashi.

We use domestically grown azuki and prepare different kinds of paste according to the type of confection. And just as in the old days, we do everything by hand.

The ears and eyes of usagi manju, the rabbit-shaped sweet from which the shop takes its name, are decorated by hand with yokan azuki jelly, giving each one a unique expression.

If at first glance the showcase looks bare, it's because only samples are displayed; your order will be wrapped in the back and brought out for you.


Another carryover from the Ueno shop is that we only place one of each product in the showcase. We keep the confections fresh and moist in the back of the shop, and wrap up each purchase upon order. All of our products can be purchased singly. For gift use, we’ll provide a box for a slight extra charge.

My top recommendation for takeaway on these hot summer days is yokan jelly. Inside the shop we have a few tables where customers can relax with a bowl of shaved ice or a classic anmitsu made with kanten jelly, salted beans, sweet bean paste, soft gyuhi rice cakes, and chilled dark cane syrup.

Orders can be boxed for gifting, but even the standard wrapping style has that happy retro charm of a brown paper package tied up with string.

You'll know the shop by the steady stream of customers from near and far who fill its entrance.



◎USAGIYA
Asagaya 1-3-7, Suginami-ku, Tokyo
☎03-3338-9230
From 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily except Saturdays and the third Friday of each month.
Two minutes on foot from JR Asagaya Station.

 

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