Junichi Mihori is tall and muscular, radiating a charismatic openness that seems to have little to do with tradition. Yet he is the third generation of Mihoris to preside over his family’s wagashi (Japanese sweets) shop, Izumiya, in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture. So for all his rock-star demeanor, Mihori couldn’t be more steeped in Japanese tradition.
“Years ago, I didn’t think wagashi and tradition were in any way cool,” laughs Mihori, now in his 40s. “In my youth I wanted to make it as a musician. I spent most of my days performing in live clubs.”
Mihori’s past, though, is definitely connected to his present. He not only makes and sells wagashi, he does wagashi demonstrations on stage, in front of audiences in Europe, Asia and the U.S.
“I think wagashi can help spread Japanese culture abroad, in the same way that tea ceremonies and flower arrangements do,” says Mihori. “Wagashi may even have an advantage as there aren’t many rigid rules. There’s a lot of freedom of expression. I want to show the world that wagashi can be entertainment. Wagashi acts on your emotions, excites and inspires you. Ultimately, wagashi has a calming effect. It declutters your mind and hones your senses. For me, it evokes the moon while Western sweets recall the sun.”
Mihori is extremely eloquent when describing wagashi, but he says this eloquence doesn’t translate well to English.
“I prefer performing the art of wagashi to explaining it,” he says. “It’s more important for me to forge a connection with the audience through my performances.”
For Mihori, English is a communication tool for getting to know the staff in various overseas locales, and to function as a performing artist. “But I don’t want to take the language thing onstage because then I won’t be able to give myself fully to the performance.”
Indeed, his performances are breathtaking rituals that involve slicing, cutting and shaping nerikiri paste into tiny, exquisite works of art.
“They’re edible, of course, but my performances are more about evoking a desire for taste, and the feeling that something special had just happened,” he says.
Like any true artist, Mihori understands the value of personal presentation and luring the audience into his world. He has a signature costume, deploys customized tools and normally performs with a mask that covers the lower half of his face.
“It is a sign of reticence,” he explains. “I want to take the audience to a place where words are not necessary.”
Like tea and flower arrangements, wagashi is often seen as something sublime. But Mihori wants the wagashi experience to be fun and fulfilling — not necessarily as a source of nourishment, but as a sheer, sensory pleasure.
“I want my wagashi to draw in the audience, to trigger their desire to taste it,” he says. “I believe wagashi should be both art form and entertainment. I want it to be every bit as exciting for the audience as it is for me.”
Mihori’s passion for wagashi has taken him to places he used to only dream about.
“For years, I wanted to go to Paris,” he says. “But someone told me that I shouldn’t go until Paris came calling. And sure enough, I got an invitation to perform at the Palais de Tokyo. It was an eye-opening experience for me.”
Mihori learned some valuable lessons in the City of Lights, namely that “to be truly cool, I had to be really stoic about my art,” he says. “I had to resist the urge to engage with the audience and to adjust my world to fit into theirs. It would have been easier and more enjoyable to do that, but then the whole thing would cease to be art. It would no longer be cool. And I couldn’t risk that in a city full of art connoisseurs.” (Kaori Shoji)
三堀純一 (みほり じゅんいち)