PHINNEY AVENUE, A MEANDERING TREE-LINED STREET in a quiet Seattle suburb near the Woodland Park Zoo, isn’t exactly a culinary hotspot. It has a pie shop, pub, sushi joint and great burger options, but it’s nothing like its eclectic sister, Fremont, or cuddly cousin, Greenwood.
Perhaps its under-the-radar, “nothing to see here, folks” vibe is what makes Phinney the perfect place for an off-the-grid Japanese confectionary that’s only open the third Sunday of every month—by appointment only.
Tokara Japanese Confectionary has non-traditional business hours that stump passersby and residents alike, but more head scratching comes from trying to figure out why a place that’s never open would be so beautiful and inviting, making you want to go inside immediately. Perched between a nondescript 1970s-style office building and drab apartment cluster, it looks like a tiny palace, with a roof made of carved wood, ornate wooden walls, white gravel garden, cherry blossom trees and benches made of tree trunks.
This mesmerizing Japanese gingerbread house is Chika Tokara’s 530-square-foot kitchen, where she creates elaborate bite-sized Japanese confections known as wagashi, which are as diverse in flavor as donuts and as delicate in appearance as petits fours. Her creations are inspired by the seasons, shaped like everything from pumpkins and ghosts to cherry blossoms and hearts, tasting like everything from green tea and sweet potato to marzipan and toasted rice.
There are countless styles of wagashi, including the jello-like yokan, the rice sponge cake manju, the bean and sugar-based kinton, and mochi—rice flour and water pounded to the thickness of a pancake, wrapped around sweet bean paste. Chika makes just a handful of styles, which change monthly, and takes one to two hours to make 30 pieces by hand.
Mochi are among her most popular offerings, and although they are as common in Japan as Starbucks is in the U.S., finding anything fresh and hand-sculpted outside of California, Hawaii and New York is rare. Despite Seattle’s bustling International District, with its Japanese restaurants and bakeries, there is little wagashi to be found outside of mochi ice cream—which doesn’t come close to the real thing.
Lower in sugar than mass-produced varieties, Chika’s mochi have a surprisingly silken texture, with subtle floral notes and the slightest bit of chew. Because Western culture doesn’t have much comparable texturally or taste-wise, the best way to describe Chika’s mochi is to say they feel like a combination of soft gummy bears and marzipan that melt on the tongue, unleashing a delicate flurry of rose petals, snow and sugar in your mouth.
Chika came to Seattle in 1999 by way of Sendai, Kyoto and Tokyo, where her pastry and wagashi-making education spanned more than seven years at schools in those cities. Recognizing a niche, she opened Tokara in 2008. Thanks to some Japanese media stories, there was a line around the block on her first day full of Japanese locals longing for a familiar taste of home. Since then, she has done no advertising, and still maintains a cult following during tohryanse (pronounced “toe-ree-yon-say”), the one day a month she’s open. Tohryanse means “come in” in Japanese, and it’s taken literally by her followers, who line out the door and spill into the courtyard, excited to be let inside and privy to the secret most of the city hasn’t figured out yet.
Chika sells wholesale throughout Seattle and takes custom orders. Her clients include the Japanese Consulate General, Japanese locals and curious souls who never give up searching for sweetness in hidden places.
Learn more about Chika’s extraordinary confections at tokaragashi.com.