When choosing a cake in a small shop in Kyoto, diners cannot know what the clip is written on.
On the road leading to Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto, there are enough restaurants and street eateries. Takeshi Matsuhisa’s Hougyokudo bakery is nestled in the busy street. Inside the shop, Takeshi Matsuhisa manipulates more than a dozen iron molds with long and thin handles. He opened the mold to take out the brown cake, then deftly folded it in half, pressed a piece of paper in, and folded it again. The cake after completion is golden brown, the shape makes many people think of the type of dessert cake in Chinese restaurants in America: lucky cake.
The baker at the Houkyokudo in Kyoto is pouring dough into the kata. Photo: Selena Hoy
The lucky cake in America is said to be the creation of immigrants to California. In fact, this cake originated in Japan, where bakers like Matsuhisa still follow the traditional way. It is known as tsujiura senbei and omikuji senbei, since the Edo period.
The custom of fortune telling the future destiny at Japanese temples and pagodas has existed for about 1,000 years. They tied those fortune-tellers to the trees on the exit. Tsujiura is a form of divination based on a number of conventions for interpreting and making speculations about the future, especially in sacred places. During the Edo era, “prophecy” cakes became a form of populist entertainment and were often sold on street corners or in teahouses.
The historical documents about the “prophecy” cake go back centuries. One of the earliest writings describing the cake is “Spring Young Grass” by Tamenaga Shunsui.
The 1878 woodblock depicts a man named Kinnosuke making tsujiura senbei in the same way that Kyoto bakers today do. Photo: Public Domain
The documents all describe this as a cake shaped in a triangle shape, with molasses spread, crunchy and taste like ginger candy. The content of the sandwich in the cake is often proverbs such as: “Determination will help us overcome difficulties. So why don’t we unite together?”.
The influx of immigrants into the United States in the mid-nineteenth century by “California gold fever” brought “prophecy” bread into the living areas of the Chinese and Japanese. In the 1870s, Mr. Makoto Hagiwara came to the United States and started a business in a teahouse next to the Golden Gate Park. The pieces of paper in the cake now are not prophecy, but words of thanks and good luck. In America, people call this the cookie of luck.
Later, the cake was made to suit the taste of the Westerner and became more popular. Japanese bakers also supply cakes to Chinese restaurants. After World War II, Mr. Hagiwara was unable to own a business because of his arrest, the Chinese employees took over and prospered. They also contributed to spread lucky biscuits throughout America.
Today, there are only a few bakeries still preserving the traditional baking method preserved for generations in Japan. Along with Hougyokudo and Matsuya, Souhonke Inariya is also a famous family bakery and has been praised by many international newspapers.
Articles about the Souhonke Inariya bakery were carefully framed and hung on the shop’s wall. Photo: Courtesy of Gary Ono
Since the origin of the lucky cake is known to many people, visitors have come to traditional shops to enjoy the original taste. Although the cake is not served in restaurants and is difficult to find, many people are willing to go a little further to buy home and enjoy with their family.