Photo/IllutrationRice crackers that look strikingly similar to Karatsu-yaki pottery teacups (Mahito Kaai)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

KARATSU, Saga Prefecture--Souvenir hunters looking for something different now have an item they can really sink their teeth into: rice crackers designed as delicate porcelain teacups.

At first glance, one wouldn't expect the “Karatsu-yaki tohen senbei” to be edible, given that they look like prized Karatsu-yaki tableware.

Perhaps just as odd is that they are sold at Nakazato Tarouemon Tobo, a famed Karatsu-yaki pottery studio founded here more than four centuries ago.

The studio commissioned confectionery maker and wholesaler Tsurumaru to learn the molding and painting techniques for Karatsu-yaki pottery to create the special rice crackers.

The senbei are displayed near the entrance to the studio, each priced at 300 yen ($2.60), along with dainty “mamezara” small plates. The crackers are based on four representative patterns of Karatsu-yaki, including plant-themed “e-Karatsu” and “Chosen-Karatsu” (Korean Karatsu), which features rice-straw ash and iron-based glazes in perfect harmony.

The biscuits are cooked from unglazed, roasted dough made from locally-produced wheat, and their surfaces are glazed with bamboo charcoal and other ingredients and then painted in elegant patterns. The crackers are slightly curved to make them look like teacups.

“There have been many occasions when customers exclaimed in surprise, ‘Is this really edible?’ when they held the senbei in their hands,” a pottery studio employee said.

Senbei are also sold in sets with a "mamezara" (1,620 yen) plate that has a chipped rim to make it appear authentic.

Tourists are snapping up the souvenirs, and monthly sales of the sets now exceed 50, according to the studio.

“It's a souvenir that can be instantly recognized as Karatsu-yaki, and it also looks fancy,” said one customer.

How the crackers came to be is a story in itself, and lies in the way the president of Karatsu-based Tsurumaru, Osamu Tsurumaru, likes to relax after work over drinks.

One evening, Tsurumaru, 46, was imbibing and admiring his Karatsu-yaki sake set when he noticed that an unglazed section at the base of the ceramics had the appearance of senbei dough.

He decided there and then to try his hand at making senbei that looked the same as Karatsu-yaki as he had never heard of them being inspired by traditional pottery.

Tsurumaru set out in the summer of last year to make trial products.

Coincidentally, Nakazato Tarouemon, 61, the 14th-generation proprietor of the pottery company, had also been thinking of ways to make confectionery inspired by Karatsu-yaki ware. The two met and immediately hit it off.

Determined to make his rice crackers look uncompromisingly realistic, Tsurumaru frequently visited the pottery studio to learn the necessary skills. He was coached by potters on painting, brushstrokes and other techniques.

Finally, in March of this year, Tsurumaru felt his efforts had paid off and his company began selling Karatsu-yaki-themed rice crackers at Karatsu Castle, an exhibition facility for floats used for the Karatsu Kunchi autumn festival and elsewhere across the city.

The senbei still sell well six months after its release.

Tsurumaru takes it upon himself to paint each rice cracker, using the same brushes he handled in the studio. When he works on the e-Karatsu pattern, he applies a transparent glaze on the senbei made from egg white, sugar and bamboo charcoal before drawing a Japanese iris and other motifs with the black pigment from the bamboo charcoal.

“The finished products are of varying quality because they are handmade, but I think you can feel the beauty of Karatsu-yaki, which is simple but sophisticated,” Tsurumaru said. “I am trying to promote them as ‘edible Karatsu-yaki.’”