First of all, let me say my experience at the Arakaki Confectionery shop in Samukawaten was unique from that of a typical visitor. But I wanted to share it so that more people will, perhaps, be intrigued and want to discover these sweets.
While planning my trip to Okinawa, I came across a bit of information on the traditional sweets, made with simple, natural ingredients, and hand-shaped into intricate shapes, for the royal family of the Ryukyu Kingdom.
Something told me to keep looking, and in addition to these treats being served with jasmine tea inside the Shuri Castle tea room, I discovered the maker of the tea room delicacies, Arakaki, a local traditional confectionery shop, that offered (when the blog was written) DIY Hanabouru, a fancy, curly "cookie" that represents the wisteria flower.
Arakaki is the last name of the pastry/dessert chef that served the last three kings of Ryukyu kingdom, and I think the shop is run by his 3rd generation descendants. The descendants have apparently branched out while keeping the Arakaki name to show their root. The one I contacted/visited is the Arakaki “Chinsuko” located in Samukawaten.
I left a message (in English) at the shop's website asking about the DIY activity, and received a very polite reply, in English, from Arakaki Masae-san, apologizing that the DIY activity is no longer available, but they can share a short video as well as explain a little bit about the sweets in English, and invited me to visit when I am in Okinawa.
So I arranged to visit the smaller flagship shop near Shuri Castle (small = room to seat 4 guests max). There is a bigger shop southwest of Naha that could accommodate more guests, but I wanted to visit the original shop, plus it was reachable within 5 minutes of taxi ride from the Shuri Castle Monorail station.
We knew communication would be a bit of a challenge, since neither of us spoke the other’s language fluently (I speak one-word sentences in Japanese at best). But we were ready to take the challenge and make it work. It worked out that our BnB hosts in Naha were also very interested and wanted to come with us, so there were 5 people using 3 languages, helping one another to make sure ideas were expressed clearly (English amongst all of us, Japanese between our local hosts and Masae-san, and Chinese between mom and me). It was great!
Masae-san, who handles Arakaki's public relations, took our visit very seriously and dressed formally in Okinawan-patterned kimono to greet us. She was very genuine and open about sharing the history and the culture of these royal treats, past and present. It was informative yet informal (by that I mean it was not a presentation, but more of relaxing conversation that flowed very freely and smoothly).
The video at the beginning of our visit was informative for how the sweets were made, and our conversation that followed gave depth of the rich culture and history behind the sweets.
Masae-san clearly put in a lot of work preparing for our visit, which really impressed us. For every question asked, she was able to show a color print out or pamphlet with explanations/information (with pictures) in addition to responding with detailed information, without knowing what we were going to ask beforehand. She must have spent SO MUCH time thinking about what we might want to know. We were quite moved by her effort and the level of reception we were given.
We sat casually around a small round table in the middle of the shop, in front of the display cases, sipped refreshingly fragrant jasmine tea the way the royalty did, and sampled the traditional royal treats while talking about each piece, from ingredients to significance, from chef training to the challenges of balancing tradition and innovation, creating new treats to keep up with the changing taste without altering the spirit of the original... and how historical events really do "shape" things, including the chinsuko (the Okinawa "short bread").
It was intriguing, inspiring, informative, and each piece had its own unique story, such as the colorful little Senjuko, which was re-discovered after being forgotten for over 30 years (and how it was re-discovered and revived was also a really good story). I got so much more out of the visit than expected, and it really gave me a new, and more in-depth appreciation for these treats, as I wrote in my “thank you” letter to Masae-san: “they are rich not only in flavor, but in history and culture. Each bite carries with it the pride and the wish of the maker to keep the tradition alive.”
Toward the end of our visit I asked if they could customize boxes of treats (they have ready-made boxes, info available on their website) so that I could take home the same treats I had in the shop, and tell the rest of my family the stories while they experience the same "royal treatment." They did, and double checked all the pieces' expiration dates for me to make sure the ones I picked would still be good when my family sees them.
By the way, since most of these sweets are not made in large quantities, customers need to order in advance if they want more than a few boxes. Luckily the amount I wanted was manageable at the store.
Because the experience Masae-san provided was clearly a special arrangement, I’m not sure whether the store will make this experience available for other visitors soon, but it was definitely the highlight of our trip to Okinawa and something we will remember and talk about for a long time!
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