Toraya: A Sweet, Centuries-old Success StoryEconomy
The year was 1526—around the time that the Spanish conquistador Don Hernán Cortés brought back the cocoa bean from the New World; that was when Kurokawa Enchu is said to have begun selling Japanese confectioneries (wagashi) in Kyoto. The firm he founded, Toraya (literally “tiger store”), has been in business ever since—and still remains in the Kurokawa family.
Toraya’s current president, Kurokawa Mitsuhiro, the seventeenth to take the helm, does not spend too much time dwelling on his company’s illustrious past, however. “Once this interview [with Nippon.com] is over,” he explains, “I’ll get right back to thinking about what we have to do now.”
“It’s mere hindsight for us to ponder why Toraya has been around for so long,” he adds. “What’s important is not the past or even the future, but the present. It comes down to doing what needs to be done to create the sort of sweets that customers will like.”
“Yōkan” Do It?
Toraya, now based in Tokyo, produces and sells a wide variety of wagashi but it is known above all for its yōkan—a thick jellied sweet made from Azuki beans. Kurokawa believes that yōkan has the potential to one day rival chocolate as a sweet with a global following.
If that goal seems overly ambitious, recall that the bitter cocoa drink Emperor Montezuma once swore by was not exactly an instant hit when brought to the Spanish shore by Cortés. It took time for Europeans to get used to the flavor, and that chocolate concoction was also adjusted to suit local tastes.
Kurokawa recognizes that raising the global profile of yōkan to a level approaching that of chocolate will be a gradual process, involving many steps. “It won’t be easy,” he says, “but drawing up a business plan for turning yōkan into a global product will go a long way toward clarifying what needs to be done.”
A big part of making that dream a reality will come down to the Azuki bean itself, the ingredient quite literally at the heart of yōkan and other wagishi delicacies. At present, most of the Azuki beans that Toraya uses are grown up in the north of Japan, in Hokkaidō. This area is perfectly suited to cultivation of the beans thanks to the considerable gap between daily high and low temperatures.
Kurokawa’s son, Mitsuharu, explains that similar beans are grown in China, Korea, and Vietnam, as well as African countries such as Nigeria, but the main difference comes down to the type of bean used. “The quality of the Japanese beans tend to be much higher than those grown elsewhere,” he explains, “but no system is in place for the beans to be taken out of Japan and grown in other countries. This is one of the highest hurdles to expanding Azuki cultivation.”
Attracting New Customers
Toraya already has achieved a considerable measure of success in popularizing wagashi overseas. This year marks the thirty-third year of operations of the Toraya shop in Paris. It started off small and gradually built up a loyal, local clientele over those years. “Some Parisians who were taken to the shop with their parents are now coming back with their own children,” Kurokawa notes.
Toraya also had a shop in New York for ten years, but high overhead, combined with the impact of 9/11, which forced many Japanese to leave the city, led to its closure in 2003. Kurokawa says that at some point in the future he would like to have another go at the American market, but there are other prospects on the horizon as well. Asia and the Middle East, in particular, seem to be promising markets for wagashi, given the similarities in taste and texture to local sweets.
The company’s effort to cultivate a taste for wagashi is not limited to overseas; it is also doing its utmost to foster demand among Japan’s younger generation, which has become more familiar with European-style confectionaries than home-grown ones. Over the past decade or so, Toraya has responded to this challenge by opening innovative retail spaces in Japan that put a new spin on the company’s traditions.
In 2003, the company opened its first Toraya Café in the fashionable Roppongi Hills building in Tokyo, featuring a lineup of sweets that combine elements of wagashi and Western confectioneries to create a whole new taste category. One example is the “Azuki and Cacao Fondant”—a marriage of Azuki bean paste and chocolate.
It is something of a balancing act to explore these new directions while also meeting the expectations of customers who have grown up with the Toraya brand. Kurokawa compares this dynamic to the way people might feel about a cityscape. “Some may wish that Tokyo had remained unchanged from the Edo days,” he observes, “but if you actually tried living in that traditional city you would soon find it uncomfortable and inconvenient in many ways. Some change is necessary.” The point Kurokawa makes is underscored by the panorama that spreads out behind him at Toraya headquarters—a view that encompasses the timeless beauty of nearby Akasaka Palace as well as Tokyo’s glittering office buildings.
Tradition may not always be on Kurokawa’s mind but it can certainly be felt in the elegant wagashi shop on the ground floor of the Toraya Building. Customers can find a wide variety of yōkan, some available year-round and others that come and go with the seasons.
At any given time, the shop also has five or six different namagashi—a type of wagashi made fresh daily, with designs and ingredients connected to the specific time of the year. Every two weeks or so the next lineup of namagashi takes center stage, often ranging from sweets that debuted centuries ago to those created in recent years. In early August, for instance, the oldest of the five namagashi on sale dated from 1773, while the latest addition was from 1994.
Matsudaira Naritada, head of Toraya’s Public Relations Division, explains that the firm is always developing new namagashi and other sweets—a process that takes around three years for each item. But Toraya only introduces a sweet once it has complete confidence in the new creation—without relying on customer feedback along the way to make adjustments.
Because the namgashi lineup is always changing, including the appearance of brand-new items, each visit to a Toraya shop promises a novel encounter. And the items selected have a connection to the particular time of the year, both in their design and in the ingredients they contain.
The sweets can provide a preview of the upcoming season. One mid-August namagashi, for instance, was shaped like a chestnut to evoke the approaching arrival of autumn. “But sweets actually made with chestnuts only begin to appear in the shop in September,” Matsudaira explains, “when the chestnuts are actually in season.”
For city dwellers, who tend to be less in tune with seasonal changes, such sweets can serve as a reminder to slow down and savor the charms specific to a particular time of the year.
Flexibility and the Future
The future for Toraya looks as bright as its past, but for smaller wagashi firms, which make up the bulk of the industry, the years ahead seem less certain. As director of the Japan Wagashi Association, Kurokawa is keenly aware of the challenges facing wagashi firms.
“There has been a loss of confidence among wagashi makers,” he explains. “I often hear from owners of firms that their sons are working as ‘salarymen’ and that they don’t want them to take over the family business because it is such a tough way to earn a living.” These businesses will have to close their doors if no one can be found to carry on.
Kurokawa thinks that one way to brighten the mood in the industry and heighten its appeal among the younger generation would be to do more to promote individual wagashi confectioners. “Even though the confectioners are incredibly skilled, many of them remain relatively unknown to the public. I want to shine the spotlight on them.”
He would like to see the name of the confectioner front and center, rather than the name of the establishment they work for—much like the situation today for culinary and pastry chefs in France and elsewhere. This might go a long way toward sparking an interest in the profession among young people, Kurokawa believes.
This sort of focus on what needs to be done now, rather than simply following the ways of the past, is what has kept Toraya in business all these years and also allowed it to preserve many of its traditions.
This flexibility may have something to do with the fact that there are no set-in-stone Kurokawa “family precepts” to be passed down from father to son. When Kurokawa Mitsuhiro took over from his own father, back in 1991, he realized the freedom and responsibility that came with the position: “Since there were no precepts, it was basically: Do what you like—it’s all up to you now.”
Company name: Toraya Confectionery Co., Ltd.
Head office: 4-9-22 Akasaka, Minato-ku, Tokyo 107-8401
Representative: Kurokawa Mitsuhiro, President
Business: Production and sale of Japanese confectioneries
Capitalization: ¥24 million
Employees 878 (as of June 1, 2013)
(Originally written in English by Michael Schauerte based on an interview conducted by Nagasawa Takaaki; photographs by Kimura Junko of Jana Press.)