Photo/IllutrationUkihoshi comes in many colors and flavors. (Azusa Kato)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

NIIGATA--A rebranding effort saved Yukari, a type of sugar-coated “arare” roasted rice cake sweet, from extinction.

Meijiya, the last surviving producer of Yukari, which is unique to Niigata Prefecture, was contemplating closing up for good a few years ago.

Mikio Kobayashi, 79, head of the Meijiya confectionary maker and shop founded in 1900, said he was becoming no longer physically able to do the labor-intensive work, and it seemed few people were interested in Yukari anyway.

To make Yukari, a candy maker must continue mixing the tiny star-like sweets for more than seven hours in a 1.5-meter diameter rotating pot. People put them in hot water and drink the sweetened water like tea.

The turning point came when Kazunari Sako, 38, head of design group Hickory 03 travelers based in Niigata city, saw an underrepresented charm in the product.

Sako offered to rebrand the product and came up with a new name, Ukihoshi (floating stars). He also suggested more stylish plastic packaging that would show off the colors of the delicate stars.

In addition, he suggested selling Ukihoshi in round gift cans with fancy labels.

After Ukihoshi was shown at trade show in winter 2015, orders poured in from around Japan.

The popularity of the products also spread through social media.

Under the hashtag of “Ukihoshi” in Japanese, Instagram has about 1,000 photos of the sweet. Some are using it for toppings on ice cream or yogurt.

The shape and production method remain unchanged from 100 years ago. Sales increased tenfold after the rebranding, and about 100,000 packets are expected to be sold this year.

“We reflect the current times (in design) while maintaining the skills and the essence of things,” Sako said proudly. “Design can help us to see old things in a new light.”

To meet the increasing demand, Kobayashi’s daughter and her husband started helping him at work. Akihiro Kawasaki, 49, the son-in-law, will eventually take over production of the traditional confectionary.

“There are people using the sweets in many ways,” Kawasaki said. “I hope to pass on this culinary culture to a wider public while taking in useful ideas.”