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Japan House open house to feature the art of making Japanese sweets

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Photo courtesy
Japan House

The art of making Japanese sweets, such as these hanami dango, will be featured during the spring open house of Japan House.

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3/24/2011 | Dusty Rhodes, Arts & Humanities Editor | 217-333-0568;

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Japan House will celebrate the change of seasons with an open house from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on April 9 (Saturday) that will feature the art of making traditional Japanese sweets, known as wagashi.

Hagashi sweets. | Photo courtesy Japan House

Boston-based Glenn A. Sorei Pereira will give presentations on wagashi at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. A professor of tea since 2002, after training at the famed Urasenke School of Tea, Pereira teaches the arts associated with the Japanese tea ceremony – tea, flower arranging and sweet-making.

Tea ceremonies will be performed throughout the day by members of the Urbana-Champaign Association of Chado Urasenke Tankokai. James Bier, the designer and builder of the Japan House gardens, will guide tours at 1 and 3 p.m., and Japanese floral arrangements created by University of Illinois students in their art and design classes will be on display.

“Japanese sweets never sound great to most Americans, but once people try them, they’re quite amazed,” Pereira said.

White, brown and “black” sugar are key ingredients in Japanese sweets, as well as rice or wheat flour and beans – often red azuki beans, soy beans or lima beans. The beans are soaked, boiled, rinsed and re-boiled so thoroughly that the bean taste disappears, Pereira said.

 “The beans become more of a texture to work with,” he said. Eggs may be used in sweets, but no milk, no cheese and no butter.

 “Moist sweets” are traditionally served after a formal meal, followed by a bowl of “thick” tea shared among the guests. The tea is followed by a small, bite-sized “dry” sweet, made of pressed sugar and rice or soy flour, served with individual bowls of frothy “thin” tea. In Japan, the preparation and presentation of the communal bowl of thick tea is more important than any of the food.

Pereira, who is of Portuguese descent, had only a “vague, general interest” in Japanese culture when he first took lessons at a Boston-area Japanese tea house in 1981. But he was immediately hooked. Within a year, he was in Kyoto, Japan, enrolled in intensive tea study (on scholarship) at the Urasenke School of Tea.

 “I think of tea as finding me, as opposed to me finding it,” Pereira said.

On his first trip to Japan, Pereira realized that his heritage gave him a connection to the country. “Portuguese were the first foreigners in Japan,” he said, referring to explorers who landed there in the mid-1500s. “They introduced Japan to sugar and tobacco.”

A self-described “missionary of chado” (the way of tea), Pereira said this discipline is similar to others, such as calligraphy (shodo), flower arranging (kado), and martial arts (judo). “Through discipline, one can better one’s life and surroundings,” he said.

Explaining how that happens through the simple act of preparing and sharing tea isn’t easy, even for Pereira. “Sen no Rikyu, who was the founder of tea the way it’s done today, said tea was nothing more than hot water and tea. But it is, oh dear, so complicated,” Pereira said. “It’s sharing a moment in time. And through that, there’s a better understanding of each other, and a better understanding of our surroundings and of nature.

“There’s something about tea that just changes everything,” he said.

Japan House is at 2000 S. Lincoln Ave. in Urbana. The open house is free.

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