A tale of a traditional Japanese sweet shop in the heart of London
During my University days, while venturing around Picadilly Circus, I was lucky enough to find Minamoto Kitchoan, a Japanese 和菓子屋 - 'wagashiya' (traditional Japanese sweet shop) just opposite Fortnum and Mason.
I had been interested in Japanese culture for many years and so, to finally see a real, Japanese store, with my very own eyes, was a truly remarkable find.
Upon entering, glass counters glistened and delicately arranged products lay within. Japanese staff members shimmied to and fro making sure everything was just so. Everything looked so precious and fascinating. 'How could anyone walk into this shop and not be tempted to buy something?' I thought.
I purchased a single 'Orebenishiki', an 'Usagisan' and a 'Hanaouto' and sauntered down to Trafalgar Square and curiously ate them while watching passersby. This was one of my favourite things to do as a student as it was relatively cheap and I was able to absorb myself in the thrall of London.
Sam's First 'Wagashi'
My absolute favourite and a must-try. Part of their signature collection. Features chestnut paste and red bean paste wrapped in Japanese cake.
Like most Japanese desserts, it is not overly sweet and allows you to truly enjoy the natural flavours, something that I have been passionate about adopting within SANCHA ever since.
I usually scoffed these down in a few bites but am sure I would enjoy them more gracefully now with a cup of Japanese tea. I think 玄米茶 - Genmaicha* would pair very well with this, in particular, to help enhance the earthy flavours.
(*玄米茶 - Genmaicha, a tea, made primarily, of roasted brown rice.)
These adorable sweets are also a huge recommendation. I have only ever tried the yuzu and white bean flavour. To my recollection, I don't remember seeing the strawberry one so perhaps it is a new flavour? Nevertheless, I am certain that both are delicious.
White bean paste is typically sweeter than its red counterpart. It's surrounded by a beautiful, delicate cake and is notably adorable in appearance too.
I highly recommend taking this particular sweet with a green tea such as 抹茶 - matcha or 煎茶 - sencha and enjoying the contrast between the sweet and bitter notes.
Essentially, a whole premium-grade cherry entirely immersed in a sweet/sour jelly.
From the website, it seems that this is a vegan item so I can only assume that the jelly is 寒天 - kanten (we refer to as agar-agar here in the West).
This particular product gets points for how visually appealing Japanese sweets can be but I have to admit, I have never been a huge fan of jellies, even English ones!
This was my least favourite of the bunch but I was mesmerised by its appearance and certainly won't let my taste affect what a fine product this is for those that enjoy desserts of a wobbly nature.
A Deep Impression
I ventured back to Minamoto Kitchoan often to browse what was on offer. Fortunately, Japanese food is inherently seasonal, so there was always something new to try.
As a student, these products were usually out of my budget, but, to treat myself on occasion, I decided to visit and purchase a small quantity of the most delicious looking sweets to reward myself for my hard-work.
I also remember a rather embarrassing occasion where I had tried to speak to the staff in Japanese! I fumbled with my words and wasn't even able to form a basic introduction. I was met with awkward glances and moments of silence. I was so embarrassed but I'm glad that it didn't deter me from my path to fluency and it only fuelled my desire to learn Japanese.
Needless to say, this store marked the beginning of a life-long love for Japanese sweets and sparked a further interest in a culture that I was sure that I would love.
Minamoto Kitchoan in Ginza, Tokyo
Whilst living in Tokyo, I started a Fashion Brand on a shoe-string budget and was fortunate enough to meet a wide variety of professional and personal contacts.
In Japan, gift-giving is an integral part of Japanese culture, even in cities where this tradition has unfortunately diminished.
As I struggled with money, I often relied on favours and help from people in many areas while running my business. Anything from complex business Japanese and etiquette, networking, showing my designs, calling in favours and so on, I received a lot of help. Looking back, I'm so grateful to all the kind souls that took their time to support my endeavours.
I'll admit, when I was younger, I would give gifts with the expectation that people would help me in return. I regret this now and I'm glad that, as I've gotten older, giving gifts has become more selfless and I genuinely feel happy brightening another person's day.
I remember visiting Minamoto Kitchoan's main store in Ginza and buying gifts to thank those that had helped me. I ordered in perfect Japanese and spoke casually with the staff, it was a monumental step for me realising how far I had come in my Japanese learning journey.
Returning after Tokyo
After returning from Tokyo and during my first trip back to London, I was keen to visit Minamoto Kitchoan again and re-live my nostalgic student memories.
I met with a Japanese friend that I had bumped into by chance and we ventured down to Piccadilly Circus. How many times had I taken this trip? I will never know.
Approaching the building, my heart sank...
We strolled up to where Minamoto Kitchoan once stood and found that it had closed. Confused, I looked it up online to find that it was still trading, but their physical store was no longer in operation.
According to their website, they have had to leave Piccadilly Circus due to development plans in the local area and are currently looking for suitable premises to launch their new store. Fortunately, they are still selling their products on the website.
I am so happy to see that after 15 years, they are still selling some of my favourites.
I look forward to visiting their physical store again. I'd like to pop in and introduce myself, in Japanese, without making any mistakes this time. For now, I might just have to place an online order to tide me over until that day comes.
Thank you for reading my first ever blog post. I appreciate your time 🙇🏼
Have you been to Minamoto Kitchoan before? If so, what would you recommend?
*All images used were taken directly from Minamoto Kitchoan's website.*