Wagashi, a Celebration of Sweets

Attention, sweet tooths! June 16th is Wagashi no Hi, or Wagashi Day. Instagram, Pinterest and other social media are likely to explode in a visual overload of these attractive and tasty sweets. Yet wagashi, “traditional Japanese confectioneries”, have long been on many a food lover’s radar. The morsels are increasingly gaining popularity, more so since Japanese cuisine, or washoku, was added to the UNESCO “intangible cultural heritage” list in 2013.

Wagashi, a Brief Overview

Origins in China

Soba Manju Wagashi Sweets, Freshly Baked -- Photo from Flickr cc by open arms
The original wagashi were no more than natural berries, fruits and nuts. From the 7th century onwards, these sweets evolved to include rice, millet, rye and other grains. The concept of wagashi was introduced by Chinese priests and Japanese academics returning from China. Mochi and dango, confections made from pounded glutinous rice and rice flour, date back to this time. Later additions include yokan (a jellied bean paste) and manju (steamed bean buns). In Japan, however, eating meat was forbidden. Manju were instead filled with azuki or sweet red beans, a wagashi staple and building block. Such confectioneries were served at the Imperial Court and among Buddhist and Shinto priests at high-level ceremonies.
"Southern Barbarian" confectionery

Castella Sponge, Introduced to Japan by the Portugese -- Photo from Flickr cc by Norio Nakayama
Exclusive trade with Portugal and Spain during the late 16th and early 17th centuries further revolutionized wagashi's development. The Europeans brought nanban or "Southern barbarian" sweets to Japan made with dairy products, eggs and sugar.

Wagashi Using Wasanbon Sugar -- Photo Courtesy of the JNTO
Sugar's introduction was of great significance. During the Edo period (1603–1868), Japanese confectioners created a new kind of sweet using wasanbon sugar from Tokushima and Kagawa prefectures.
Edo Period: The sweets boom

Wagashi at Toraya, Asakusa -- Photo from Flickr cc by Hajime NAKANO
Wagashi’s development during the Edo time period is intertwined with the tea ceremony; in particular, that of Kyoto. In the lead up to the Edo Period, tea ceremony master Sen No Rikyu had served simple confections during tea gatherings for the upper classes. Because the tea ceremony was linked with classical literature, wagashi too became associated with luxury and the aristocracy.

Wagashi Use Seasonal Motifs -- Photo from Flickr cc by Yuya Tamai
Inspired by traditional poetry, folktales and other lore, Kyoto-based confectioners began creating exquisite wagashi reflecting seasonal changes and nature. Subtle in taste and aroma, the sweets complimented the bitter taste of tea. No longer confined to the rich and influencial, wagashi became popular as gifts and for serving to guests. Across Japan, districts began developing their own unique wagashi to sell as souvenirs.

Five Elements

Wagashi from Higashiya Ginza, Designed to Appeal to All One's Senses -- Photo from Flickr cc by Masahiro Ihara
Wagashi are intended to stimulate all five senses, embodying the principle of go an. Cooks are advised to be mindful not only of taste but also of sight, smell, sound and touch (texture):
  • Appearance/Sight (Colour, design and form. Inspired by Japanese literature, art and nature)
  • Touch/Texture (Soft, moist or crisp. The freshness and quality of wagashi should be apparent when taking from plate to mouth)
  • Taste (Noticeable flavours as provided by base ingredients)
  • Aroma/Smell (Delicate and subtle, so as to not overpower any accompanying beverages)
  • Sound (Evoked through the prounouciation of wagashi names, especially those with seasonal or literary links)

Wagashi Types


This Kind of Wagashi, Namagashi, Should be Consumed Immediately -- Photo Courtesy of the JNTO
Namagashi are moist sweets, made from sticky rice flour, kanten (agar-agar), an (sugar and bean paste), and wheat flour. The most common type is nerikeri, sweets best consumed the same day as purchase and moulded into seasonal shapes and motifs. Other varieties include yokan, jewel-hued bar sweets; monaka, crisp wafers plumped with a red bean filling; manju, the aforementioned buns; kushi-dango, glutinous rice balls on a stick and coated with various toppings; daifuku, red bean paste wrapped with a thin layer of glutinous rice; and sakura mochi, red bean paste inside infused rice and wrapped in a cherry blossom leaf. Warabi mochi, made from bracken starch, is another kind of namagashi, typically eaten in summer.

Wagashi Molds Used to Make Rakugan -- Photo from Flickr cc by Yasuo Kida
Otherwise known as dried sweets, the most famous kind of higashi are rakugan, sugary creations pressed in intricate molds and made from a mixture of glutinous rice flour, sugar and starch or wasanbon sugar.

Higashiya Okoshi -- Photo by Julie Fader
Further examples of higashi include okoshi, a toasted rice cake dipped in syrup before being dried, and sembei, rice crackers available in savoury or sweet flavours.

Dorayaki are a Common Everyday Snack -- Photo from Flickr cc by Emran Kassim
Simpler and more informal than their fancy counterparts, these sweets are commonly eaten as daily snacks. One of the most famous kinds is taiyaki, a red-bean filled snack shaped as a fish. Also popular is the dorayaki, a confection where azuki red-bean paste is sandwiched between two small pancake-like discs. Dora means "gong" in Japanese, and is probably where the sweet’s name comes from. Apparently the first dorayaki were made when a samurai left his dora at a farmer’s home where he’d been hiding and the farmer humorously used the gong to fry pancakes.

Wagashi, Soba Karinto -- Photo from Flickr cc by 雷太
Moving away from Japan’s ubiquitous red bean desserts, karinto, a sweet, fermented deep-fried, pretzel-like cracker, is another popular kind of snack. Traditional karinto are coated in dark brown, sometimes Okinawan sugar, but a cornucopia of flavors such as kinpira gobo (burdock root and carrot), shichimi togarashi (seven spice) negi miso (leek and miso) and ginger are currently on-trend.

Taste for yourself and download this trip to explore wagashi!

Jane K