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Mo-mi-ji Manju. Doesn’t that roll off the tongue so much better than “maple leaf-shaped cakes”?
Ask virtually any Japanese person about manju and the chances are that they’ll mention momiji manju, as they are great in both taste and appearance.
What are they anyway? These are little cakes (some people call them buns) that are famous in the Miyajima and Hiroshima region of Japan. Manju cakes can be found all over Japan, but the maple leaf-shaped momiji manju is unique to this area.
Miyajima is a sacred island in the bay off Hiroshima. It is famous for many shrines and temples, but also for its mountain and many trees, so it is a well-known leaf-peeping spot in the autumn, notably for the gorgeous crimson maple leaves.
These little cakes take the shape of maple leaves, and they were first created on Miyajima Island. Traditionally they were filled with mashed or crushed red bean paste (azuki or anko), but recently other variations have appeared, with fillings made from Japanese green tea, chocolate, custard cream, sweet chestnuts, sweet potato, almonds, or cheese.
Momiji Manju are popular souvenirs from Miyajima Island and the Hiroshima area and we saw many places selling boxes of them. In the early years, momiji manjus were hand baked one by one, but today they are mostly made by machines that somewhat resemble do-nut machines. As you walk along Omotesando (the small shopping street/arcade in Miyajima one block off the waterfront), you will see a lot of momiji manju shops, many of which make the manju on-site. Most of these mini automation lines are at the side of the shop behind glass walls that allow tourists to see how exactly how momiji manjus are being made and packaged. It is interesting to watch the bakers in white (usually) putting in the dough and the fillings and then to see the momiji manjus coming out of the machine. In some stores you can taste and buy a freshly baked momiji manju that just came out of those machines. They are delicious.
There is a very interesting story about how the momiji manju became the representative souvenir of Miyajima. In the Meiji period (1868-1912), Itoh Hirobumi (the first Prime Minister of Japan) loved Miyajima and frequently visited it. He especially loved Mt. Misen with its trees and magnificent views and donated money to keep the mountain trail in good condition. During one of his visits to enjoy the scarlet maple leaves, he saw the delicate little hands of the girl who served tea for him at a teahouse and said, “Your hand is like a maple leaf!” The proprietress of the old inn, Iwaso, took a hint from his words and ordered her baker to make an original confectionery shaped like a maple leaf. That was the start of the Momiji Manju tradition. It is difficult to prove if this story is true or not, but many long-established momiji manju shops believe in this story. So the tradition has been passed on for many generations.
Whatever their origin, these cakes are definitely a fun feature on Miyajima, a tasty souvenir to track down.
(Click on any picture to get a larger view)