From the 15th century onwards, Kyushu and Japan initiated vibrant trade partnerships with the Dutch and Portuguese. Sugar started to arrive, and was passed through Nagasaki and Kyushu to the rest of Japan. This trade route has come to be known as the Sugar Road. These historical exchanges are the reason why Kyushu has become known for its sweet tooth. The abundant use of sugar in their food sets their cuisine apart from the rest of Japan. And their relationship with sugar has even affected the Buddhist offerings on the island. Rice and sugar were historically treasured objects in Japan, and thus reserved for special offerings to Shinto gods, Buddha and ancestors in the form of sticky rice cakes (mochi) or sweets such as rakugan.
Rice and sugar were historically treasured objects in Japan, and thus reserved for special offerings to Shinto gods, Buddha and ancestors
Rakushindo is a workshop located in the eastern part of Fukuoka Prefecture. Here they make rakugan for offerings in Buddhist temples and household religious altars called butsudan. A popular sweet in Japan, Rakugan is made from sugar, rice flour, and food colouring, used often in tea ceremonies. This sweet is not solely made for human consumption, but also sometimes as a religious offering. And in some parts of Japan, families would take the sweets home after a ceremony, to eat whilst thanking the Buddha for their blessings.
The craft of colouring the sugar, pressing the rakugan and designing the patterns is very labour intensive work which falls back on Buddhist and Japanese tradition. Due to its labour-intensive nature, the number of artisans creating these sweets has decreased over time.
Rakushindo began by making rakugan for local temples, but they have since expanded and now make rakugan for household butsudan altars as well. Unlike many other makers who focus on making rakugan for human consumption, with religious rakugan production merely forming a “side business”, Rakushindo focuses almost entirely on making rakugan for temples and altars. Thus compared to many Rakugan makers who create about 10 colors of sweets, Rakushindo uses over 200 colors to make a collection of over 100 rakugan patterns and designs.
Culinary history and religious tradition meet in the workshop of Rakushindo
To create the rakugan, sugar is mixed with food colouring and rice flour before it is pressed into a mould. The excess is then scraped off, tapped out of the mould, and steamed. It is then dried for a whole day before it is ready to be placed into design patterns . They make offerings in all kinds of shapes and sizes, with bright colours and dazzling gradients. These gradient designs are an original invention of the Rakushindo workshop.