This month, we reunite with Ryoko Hayashi (aka @Ryoko ~Cookie Ave.), our March 2022 site artist and longtime contributor to Cookie Connection and our Practice Bakes Perfect challenges. Ryoko, who hails from Fukuoka, Japan, joined Cookie Connection in June 2015 and, since then, has participated in 36 challenges with a whopping 54 entries! It didn’t take long for Ryoko to establish herself as a cookier with supreme storytelling skills. Nearly every one of her charming and creative challenge entries has featured a vignette that, through its relationship of characters and other design elements, has conveyed a smile-inducing story. (If I’m not making much sense now, all I’ve said will soon become clear as you see some of Ryoko’s entries scattered throughout this post.) While I did a Close-up interview with Ryoko back in 2016 and had the good fortune of meeting her in 2018 when I taught in Japan, it’s been a while since we’ve had a chance to catch up. I’m really looking forward to hearing Ryoko’s latest stories, and revisiting some of the questions I asked in 2016 to learn how the Japanese cookie business has changed since then. Onward!
JMU: Hi, Ryoko! Welcome! It’s so wonderful to be talking with you today. I’ve missed seeing you on the site in recent months. Let’s start with you reminding everyone of when and why you started your cookie journey, and how you discovered Cookie Connection, okay?
RH: Thank you, Julia, for giving me another chance to say “hi” to the members and for dragging me back to cookie world (LOL). Looking back at all of my clips on Cookie Connection, I find it hard to believe that I actually made them. After some time away [from cookies], I started worrying that I couldn’t make cookies like I had, because I was losing confidence in myself. Cookie Connection always warmly welcomes me back, and people still remember me. Thank you, indeed!
As for my cookie journey . . . In 2014, I retired early from my business to do what I didn’t and couldn’t do while I worked. I net-surfed and found pretty things such as sewing, knitting, crocheting, basket weaving, and cookie decorating. The decorated cookies reminded me of a big blue Cookie Monster cookie that I got from the States when I was 8 years old or so. My curiosity was piqued, and I found YouTube with the gorgeous and famous cookie artists we all know now: you, Haniela, LilaLoa, SweetAmbs, and Montreal Confections. Naturally, I soon discovered Cookie Connection, which I visited over and over especially to see the Practice Bakes Perfect Challenge section. I couldn’t resist watching the beautiful magic on cookies, so I tried to decorate some cookies for my mother. The outcome was like a 3-year-old kid’s drawings but the cookies made her smile. Success!
JMU: Yes, a happy person is always the best measure of success! When I interviewed you in 2016, you were a cookie hobbyist. I asked then if you ever had any intentions to sell your gorgeous cookies, and you stated that the permitting process in Japan was fairly onerous and costly, and, that to justify it, you’d have to work hard on cookies every day – something that you thought might sap your enthusiasm for cookies. Therefore, selling was not in the cards for you at that time. Is the same true for you today? How has your cookie decorating life changed since we last spoke? How much time do you spend on cookies these days, and doing what sorts of things?
RH: The calculation of what it takes to make ends meet in the cookie business still disappoints me. Here in Japan to sell, one needs to have a kitchen separate from the home kitchen and to meet other legal requirements. They all cost too much for me. If I had enough fortune, I would still say “no” [to selling] because I cannot make the same things repeatedly. That would make me bored, and I’d become a zombie!
Recently my cookie decorating life changed suddenly. I was forced back into the business world I had left by destiny, if there is such a thing. Now I have almost no time for fun. I finally made some dough but it remained frozen for a while. At last, I baked some cookies out of it, but they have sat on my table for three weeks. That surely is long enough for a paper towel to absorb all of the butter from my cookies, I guess! Poor cookies!
JMU: I am so sorry to learn of the change of events that’s keeping you from fun. I do hope your fun-work balance is restored soon, so you can return to cookies – and so we might again enjoy your works of art on the site. As I said, I truly miss seeing them, though I also understand how life can sometimes take unexpected turns that disrupt all sense of normalcy.
Speaking of unexpected turns . . . COVID really turned our worlds upside down over the last couple of years. How, if at all, did it impact your cookie decorating activity in Japan? And now that COVID seems to be largely behind us, how, if at all, will you alter your cookie decorating work/activity going forward?
RH: What I know is many in-person classes were cancelled because of COVID. I have no idea what happened to the instructors or what they did. But if classes are given online, I can save on accommodations because many in-person classes are held in the center of Japan, which is not close to me.
By the way, the swimming pool where I go was temporarily closed because of COVID and, instead of swimming, I did Ring Fit Adventure by Nintendo! (Why not cookies?!) While on the topic of the swimming pool . . . to make the set below for Challenge #27, I stared at my young male swimming instructor, hoping to get a cookie idea, and he just glared back at me!
JMU: LOL – sometimes cookie inspiration doesn’t come easily – and, all too often, non-cookiers think we cookiers are crazy, especially when we’re in hot pursuit of our next cookie idea!
As you may know, we’re launching a new form of the Cookie Connection challenges in July. Each challenge will begin with some video coaching by a respected cookie artist, and then people will be challenged to apply the skill or skills taught in that video. Since you have been one of our most prolific challenge participants, I’d like to ask what topics you’d most like to see covered in these new challenges, and why?
RH: It’s incredibly great to have a new form of challenge, and I am very excited to see how it goes. The topic I’d most like to see . . . recently I got some Italian gel colorings, and they are very different than the Wilton and Sugarflair colorings that I have. I would like to see how Italians paint on cookies with these different kinds of gel colorings. How people handle isomalt is another topic I want to see. I made a magnifying glass with isomalt for Challenge #30. Well, actually, I made it look like a magnifying glass with a little trick (see photo below). I can melt and pour isomalt, but I’d like to see other applications. But will I need special tools for these challenges?
JMU: To answer your question: I think the need for special tools would depend on the challenge. If we did one about unusual isomalt applications as you suggested, then perhaps, yes, you’d need something special. But in all honesty, our goal is to make these challenges as accessible to as many people as possible, so we’re trying to choose topics that can be done without investing in new tools – or ones where people might apply the topic in different ways, thus allowing them to choose among tools they already have.
Still on the topic of challenges, what do you see as the primary benefits of participating in challenges, and what tips would you give to those who are considering entering our new challenges so that they get the most out of them?
RH: Personally, if there were no challenges, I would just do what I was interested in and might never know there were so many possibilities. Prior to the Cookie Connection challenges, I got bored soon after I started decorating cookies with my limited skills. Once I was aware of the challenges, just looking at all of the others’ entries made me realize there are many ways to approach the same challenge. How many different ways people create things for the same challenge is really astonishing. At the beginning, I didn’t have the courage to join the challenges, and I was just mesmerized by the wonderful entries. I felt like I was an outsider. But once I participated in the challenges, people encouraged me, gave me tips, shared ideas, answered my questions, and supported me. The judges always tracked growth in each participant too. The thing to remember is: the challenges on Cookie Connection are not competitions but challenges to oneself - something that helps us to see a world that we have never seen. Just trying and making some mistakes will give precious tips.
JMU: Oh, I am so glad you feel this way! (And to think, I didn’t even have to pay you to say all of those kind things! LOL!) You clearly established a recognizable style through your work in all of our challenges. And, as I noted earlier, almost all of your cookies convey a story. How did you come upon this style of storytelling? And how do you decide which stories to tell through your cookies?
RH: This question is difficult to answer because I made only what was in my mind . . . I am not a writer, but isn’t cookie decorating a bit like writing a book? Some characters were born, and they started moving by themselves . . . that’s the best I can explain it. As I said, I cannot make the same design repeatedly and, in addition, I just cannot make pretty and beautiful things without thinking about the people who are related to them. The cookies I did for the stringwork challenge (see below) were really unusual for me in this regard. Combining straight lines to make a round shape? That did capture my curiosity, however.
JMU: Interesting . . . Following up on my previous question, how do think a story is best told through cookies? By this, I mean: Are there certain design features or principles that you think need to be applied to ensure that a cookie or cookie set conveys a compelling story? If so, what are these things?
RH: If my cookies get people’s interest, it might be because I made something that reminded them of their younger days or their small kids - or something just rings a bell with them. I also like to share Japanese culture through my cookies just because I am also interested in other cultures. For instance, I made the cookie below for @Manu biscotti decorati (a longtime friend met through the challenges) who eventually went back to her hometown of Italy after living in other countries. The hand in Adam’s Creation by Michelangelo (at the Sistine Chapel in Rome) is expressing “coming, not coming, coming . . .” with the sunflower petals that Manu loves. I guess you could say that cookie was my Italian interpretation of “loves me, love me not, loves me . . .”, a game many of us played as kids with daisy petals.
JMU: Ahhh, that cookie is filled with more meaning than I ever imagined!
You’ve also tested yourself in incredible ways through the challenges – you’ve tried so many different techniques and applied them all in such creative ways! Which cookie decorating techniques are your favorites, and why?
RH: Oh no, that’s another difficult question to answer because I do not have favorite techniques. But that doesn’t mean I don’t like any of them. I tackle challenges with different techniques just because I am very curious about what will happen in different ways. Though not really a technique, making foods with royal icing was something I really enjoyed. That was fun!
JMU: I loved - and still love - that sushi set of yours! Now for the converse of the above question (which I also asked back in 2016) . . . What’s your “cookie kryptonite” or Achilles’ heel in cookie decorating? That is, which technique or techniques are most challenging for you? And how, if at all, are you taking steps to turn these challenges into strengths?
RH: What?! Practice?! That’s the last thing I want to do. Remember: I get bored easily. Even if I were to make 100 roses with royal icing to improve my technique, the first one and the 100th one would look the same (no improvements at all). But, if I decide to make only one rose perfectly, it will come out very well. People who paint beautifully say they mix colors on their palettes, but when I finish painting, my palette ends up with one dark mixed color. What I really cannot do are straight lines and circles with royal icing. And I am still thinking about Practice Bakes Perfect Challenge #19 (Molded Cookies), but no idea comes out. With molded cookies, how can I make something original? That answer remains elusive to me.
JMU: I think you underestimate your skills and creativity, but, like you, I get bored easily . . . so following my own interests and trying new things are key to sustaining my enthusiasm for this craft.
In 2016, I also asked how you would characterize the cookie culture in Japan. Was interest in cookie decorating growing there? What cookie decorating styles or techniques were most popular, and what cookie decorating trends, if any, did you observe? You mentioned that cookie decorating was definitely more popular than it had been a few years prior, because you had observed a growing number of stores dedicated to selling cookie decorating tools, particularly cutters. I’d like to ask all of these same questions again. Further, what changes, if any, have you seen in cookie decorating in Japan since 2016?
RH: Decorating cookies is still new to many people here. Often after I give my cookies, people say, “They taste good.” But we all expect and want to hear “they are beautiful," don’t we? Decorated cookies are supposed to be eaten, I know, but how can people just open the bag and eat them immediately? This is the voice from my heart speaking. I still see many cookie cutters and things related to cookie decorating at dollar shops, which means their sales are steady. From these things, though, I can tell that people typically just bake a few cookies at a time, draw simple pictures with colored powder (icing), and possibly decorate more with sugar pearls. These particular ingredients are sold in small packages to decorate probably four or five cookies.
JMU: Yeah, I think the same is perhaps true here in the US if you just look at dollar shops. They sell only very basic supplies. The really interesting cookie decorating tools, sold to more ardent cookie decorators, are mostly sold online via specialty cookie shops. I wonder if such online shops exist in Japan . . .
As you may or may not know, I recently entered into a licensing agreement with Japan Salonaise Association (JSA), a trainer of cookiers in Japan. I trained their trainers in nearly all of my 3-D cookie techniques, and they have now released a series of 3-D cookie decorating classes based on my techniques in several Asian markets. More classes are soon to come. I’d love to get your opinion about whether you think 3-D cookies have the potential to become a big trend in Japan. When I come across Japanese cookiers’ work, I mostly see relatively small 2-D cookies, so I often wonder if there will be reluctance to working in larger 3-D formats?
RH: I know JSA because I took some classes with them in 2014. Congratulations, Julia, for having entered into a licensing agreement with them. That’s great! Yes, our cookies are smaller than the ones in the US, as you can tell from the cookie cutters sold in Japan. And, because of the humid climate here, foods can get moist quite easily. To protect from moisture, we pack cookies individually in plastic bags, each with a pack of desiccant beads or a dryer sheet. The plastic bag is sealed very tightly. Many non-Japanese ask me what the beads and sheets are! The plastic bags we can get for cookies are small; we cannot find big bags for 3-D projects. Your pretty 3-D cookies are very new to us (though I took your class in 2018) and people enjoy making them, but they wonder how they’re supposed to pack them in plastic bags to hold and protect them. If you know, the problem is solved!
JMU: Great feedback – I’ll contact JSA to discuss this point, and perhaps they can address the storage issue in their classes. Typically though, I box all of my 3-D projects and then put a larger garbage bag around that box for long-term storage. If the project is going to be eaten in a few days, I will box it and perhaps wrap the box with plastic wrap if it’s especially humid at the time - and just to keep the cookies fresh. So I imagine there are creative solutions in Japan as well. (BTW, I love your 3-D music box cookie made for Challenge #34, below.)
I understand that you recently had a visit with some other well-known cookiers in Italy! Can you share a bit of that experience with us?
RH: I am going to be envied for sure! I told @Manu biscotti decorati that the first place I wanted to visit after COVID was Italy to see her. My and my husband’s airplane tickets were cancelled many times, and hotels and other public places in Italy were also closed. In addition to the continual changes to our schedules, my father was transferred to a COVID ward in February and passed away in April just a few weeks before our departure for Italy. Taking care of my father and his business is what forced me back into business again. He left me tons of problems and troubles, and I couldn’t eat or sleep decently for over six months. I needed to see my friends desperately. Eventually, we flew to Rome to see Manu. Manu and her husband took good care of us, and Manu even cooked for us! After Rome, I went to Firenze and then to Milano where @Evelindecora (aka Evelin Milanesi) lives. Manu also came up to Milano, so I could see her again. On Zoom before my departure, Evelin told us her house is a museum, and, yes, it is! The walls and ceilings are full of her murals. I have never seen a house as original and so very beautiful. She showed us her cookies and accessories that she made, and they are so beautiful that they made me cry. Evelin offered us coffee at her house; then we went out together to have lunch, visit some famous shops, and sample some sweets. I took photos with two famous and fabulous cookie artists, and then I came home with a luggage full of dried pasta and sweet memories!
JMU: Oh, I am terribly sorry to learn of the loss of your father and your subsequent hardships, but I am glad you were able to take what sounds like a very restorative trip to be with friends. I sure wish I could have been a fly on those beautiful, muraled walls!
Now, for my usual parting question: How, if at all, do you expect or want your cookie decorating activity to change over the next couple of years? Do you intend to get into any new cookie-related activities, or to do more or less of any activities that you are already doing, and why?
RH: I am now really deep in the business that my father left me, and I have no fun except bugging younger people at work. Before they grow to hate me, I think I will have some fun by decorating cookies to offer at my father’s altar. I just decided this, and haven’t even started, but those cookies that have been waiting for three weeks to be decorated now have a purpose! If I continue at this pace over the next couple of years, I will make a lot of cookies, won't I?
Julia, thank you for founding Cookie Connection. For the eight years that I wasn’t working, I wasn’t alone in this world because I could meet many wonderful people on Cookie Connection and even some in person, including you.
JMU: And thank you, Ryoko, for being such an important contributor to the site over so many years. Truly, one of my greatest pleasures along my cookie journey was connecting with you in person in Japan. I sincerely hope that Cookie Connection can remain a home and respite to you even if you can’t visit as frequently as you once did. All my love to you as you navigate your new course in life – and please stay in touch! I close out now with one of my favorite photos of yours, made for Challenge #42 (Stained Glass) . . . it sings "Japan" to me!
Cookie and photo credits: Ryoko Hayashi
Cookier Close-ups is the place on Cookie Connection where we celebrate the change-makers of the cookie decorating world. Whether forging new enterprises, inventing novel decorating techniques, or consistently charming us with their cookie decorating prowess, each of our featured thought leaders has redefined in his/her distinctive way how we interact, create, or otherwise do business here in cookie space!
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