For anyone who’s used the phrase “too pretty to eat,” we have a new benchmark for you: amezaiku, the Japanese art of sugar sculpture. Unlike other forms of sculpture, amezaiku is not formed by chipping from a block. Instead, artists use their hands, tweezers, and scissors to shape molten rice malt (mizuame) into incredibly realistic animal shapes and designs. They only have a few minutes to pull, nip, and bend a dollop of nearly 200 degree-Fahrenheit candy on a stick; any longer and the mizuame hardens and becomes unmovable. Finally, artists paint the forms with edible dye to enhance the designs. The end result is a lollipop unlike any other.
Amezaiku is an ancient Japanese tradition dating back to the Heian period (794 to 1185 CE), when people would leave the hardened taffy creations as temple offerings. In the Edo period (1603 to 1868), the confection became more popular thanks to traveling street vendors, who would regale passersby with candymaking, stories, and music. Songs and poems celebrated the art; however, they offered little in the way of detailed descriptions that allowed future generations to carry on the craft.
But that hasn’t stopped dedicated artisans from filling in the gaps. At his shop in Tokyo’s Asakusa district, 31-year-old Shinri Tezuka shapes realistic candy creations of goldfish, koi, frogs, octopuses, and other animals that are as translucent as glass and nearly as fragile. He also encourages amateurs to try their hand at the ancient craft by shaping a relatively simplistic rabbit when they join his public classes.
Tezuka picked up the art more than a decade ago, when he was 20 years old. “At the time, it had declined to the point where there was no teaching environment at all, and it was on the verge of extinction,” he tells Mental Floss. “There was a strong feeling that it would be a shame to let it become extinct ... It had a long history, was very attractive, and had been loved for a long time; I felt a strong sense of duty to lead this tradition.”
Using literature, old video footage of artisans, and repetition, Tezuka taught himself the art of amezaiku. “The skill to move my hands precisely is important, but the skill to observe an object and grasp its shape accurately is more important,” he says. “Many people might be able to create a decent work if they were given a whole day. But you have to make amezaiku in five minutes. That is the hardest part.”
Today, artists estimate there are only around 100 amezaiku practitioners in all of Japan. They’re known as takumi—skilled craftspeople who hold an honored place in Japanese society. “Although ‘candy making’ might sound less than lofty as a profession, it is a serious art with highly skilled artisans practicing it," Japanese food historian and cookbook author Elizabeth Andoh tells Mental Floss. “Using craftsmanship as a focal point for building a community commercially is not unique to this craft, or this community. It is fairly common practice in Japan [and has been] for millennia.”