Story by Dave Choo
Photo by James Anshutz
When Chika Tanaka
makes candy, it brings out the inner child in people—sometimes the spoiled one. Chika practices the centuries-old Japanese folk art of amezaiku
(“sweet candy craft”), which involves sculpting candy into figures. Made from rice sugar, the lollipops have a mild flavor reminiscent of cotton candy. But it’s the candy-making process that’s the real crowd-pleaser. After a series of quick cuts, folds and pulls, Chika transforms a ball of molten goo into a swan, a rose or a Pokémon.
“The kids just want a piece of candy, but the adults—especially the aunties and grandmas—go crazy,” says Nathan Tanaka, Chika’s husband and partner in Candy Art Hawaii, which provides entertainment at parties and events. “The grown-ups are first in line, and then later on they’re in line again. Sometimes the kids get discouraged and ask for another balloon animal instead.”
Nathan, who twists up balloon art while Chika makes candy, discovered amezaiku at a festival in Shizuoka, where he was teaching English. As a balloon artist who’d worked Hawai‘i’s party circuit, he immediately saw the potential. “There aren’t too many people doing amezaiku anymore, so it was difficult to find someone who taught it,” he says. “It was even harder to find someone willing to teach a foreigner.” When he returned to Hawai‘i, Nathan taught Chika so they could work together.
The most difficult thing about amezaiku, Chika says, is handling the hot sugar, which she says feels like sticking your hand in a steaming rice cooker. She’s suffered second-degree burns and practiced so much that she nearly erased the fingerprints on her right hand. “If you can endure the heat, the following steps aren’t so difficult,” says Chika. “Of course, having some artistic ability is helpful.”
When they started, Chika made candy about once a month. Today their schedule is booked, with Chika working three to five parties a weekend. “Our goal is for amezaiku to become a household word,” says Nathan. “You don’t see it much anymore in Japan or anywhere else. It would be nice if someday amezaiku is as familiar as shoyu or mochi.”