By Diane Ako
Videography and editing by Mr. Tracy Arakaki
Say the word sushi, and most people think of rice and raw fish. Refer to taiko, and many understand that to be Japanese drum performances. But would you know what amezaiku is?
It’s candy art: melted sugar, shaped into edible sculptures. Even in Japan, where its been practiced for centuries, it’s not at all common. Honolulu residents Chika and Nathan Tanaka hope to change that - starting right here in Hawaii. They are candy artists, and their business is called Candy Art Hawaii.
Chika, a native of Japan, admits it’s a rare art in Japan. "There are not so many artists in Japan; I had never seen it myself in my hometown," she says. Until she met Nathan.
Ironically, it is an American who wants to perpetuate this special Japanese tradition. Nathan is a Japanese-American who grew up in Hawaii. After college, he moved to Japan for six years.
"I went to a festival, saw someone making this and was completely amazed," recalls Nathan. He sought out a teacher, which in itself was a difficult task. Ultimately, most of his skills were self-taught through trial and error.
When he returned to Hawaii, he decided to continue the craft as a part-time business, bringing joy to parties on the weekends.
He talks to me while shaping a lollipop before my eyes. "I’m working with hot sugar and shaping it into animals, and we have three to four minutes until it hardens as it cools down," he summarizes. But it's much easier said than done.
The sugar is heated to 190 degrees Fahrenheit - "like freshly cooked rice," Nathan describes. Ouch!
Add some color, work it into the taffy. Then roll, snip, and pinch it into form. A paintbrush brings it to life. Hang it to cool for a few minutes, before handing over a small piece of happiness.
Nathan reflects on the best part of his job: "It’s really fun, and just seeing the reaction of the children as they get the candy."
It's delightful for kids, and kids at heart. An 83-year-old customer watches with as much delight as the littlest children in line.
Their hands tell the story of how difficult this really is. To perfect their craft, it took hundreds of hours of practice and pain. "When we started we had blister and first degree burns," he recalls. Today, they have more than 30 shapes to offer.
The Tanakas are part of a shrinking group of candy artists. They believe there are only three amezaiku makers in the United States, and only 20 - 30 in the world!
Party guest Akihiro Okada, who was born and raised in Japan, comments, "It’s a nostalgic feeling to see amezaiku. You don’t get to see it that often, even for Japanese locals. This is completely special.”
It’s hard work, with long hours, so fewer people seem to be taking the time to learn the craft. The Tanakas savor the idea of keeping a dying tradition alive. And, it’s just as sweet to introduce a new generation to the delights of amezaiku.
Facebook: Candy Art Hawaii
*With special thanks to Kenny Endo Taiko Ensemble for allowing us to shoot video of them.
Joe Aikala – grip
Chung Siu Chow of Digital Artist Graphic – music
Maile Akita - production assistant