Japanese sweets wagashi stand the test of time

Wagashi, traditional Japanese confections, have long been a beloved treat in Japan.

They are very low in fat, flavourings and dairy free, compared to the Western-style sweets, and are made mainly from beans, starch and sugar. Dive into the wonderful world of wagashi to discover the history and culture of these traditional desserts!

History of wagashi

The production of wagashi exploded during the Edo period (1603-1867), due to the end of the wartimes in the country that made it difficult to enjoy sweets. The import of sugar prompted the evolution of Japanese culinary art and soon afterwards, Kyoto-style wagashi were created in Kyoto, whereas Edo warriors and general people welcomed Edo-style sweets. 

As distribution channels developed and traveling became more widespread, many local confections and wagashi rose to fame. Most wagashi eaten today are said to have first been made in the Edo period.

During the Meiji Period, Western confections such as chocolate, biscuits, and cakes were introduced to Japan and had a profound influence on wagashi. Since that time, names yogashi and wagashi were adopted for Western-style sweets and Japanese sweets, respectively.

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Tea ceremony and wagashi

Japanese tea ceremony, called sado, is a beautiful activity during which tea is prepared and served to the guests in a traditional way. Over the years, a simple tea drinking was turned into a ritual where bonding between the host and guests became the main aspect.  

Ceremony utensils, such as tea cups, and hanging scrolls of kakejiku in the tokonoma, are more than just individual works of art - they are important as components of the whole experience. Tea ceremony itself is considered to be a comprehensive art!

A selection of wagashi is usually served during a Japanese tea ceremony.

You may see two main types of wagashi, dried sweets higashi and moist sweets omogashi, with nerikiri being a common example. The choice of wagashi depends on the type of tea served by the host.  

Higashi are usually served with a thin and foamy tea, whereas omogashi is seen as a perfect fit  for the thick tea. The tea ceremony takes some time to complete, but there are myriads of cafes that offer tea ceremonies along with matcha and wagashi, for those who are visiting Japan.

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Four seasons and wagashi

Japan is a country with four distinct seasons, and therefore a sense of the seasons is deeply rooted in the daily lives of the Japanese people.

These changing seasons are also reflected in the wagashi design. Sakura-shaped wagashi on the shelves signal the coming of spring, and cool mizu-yokan is usually eaten in summer. Autumn brings wagashi made from chestnut and sweet potato harvested at this time of year, and in winter, wagashi is often made to resemble snow.

On top of that, many wagashi are sold only once a year, for example, for a New Year's Day, Hinamatsuri or Children's Day. They accompany many important occasions in the people’s lives, such as entrance and graduation ceremonies, funerals and memorial services.

Wagashi are deeply related to people’s lives, in times of both joy and sadness.

Wagashi as a souvenir 

There are various types of wagashi, however, many of them do not last long. Here are some wagashi that you should definitely try during your visit and wagashi which you can buy as souvenirs.

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Wagashi with a short shelf life

Fresh wagashi that can be bought at the many sightseeing places:

Dango

Dango are small dumplings made by adding water to the flour, shaping as a ball and steaming or boiling. It can be sold skewered or coated with soy sauce or sweet bean paste. Mitarashi Dango is a traditional Japanese dumpling smothered in an irresistibly salty-sweet soy glaze.

Taiyaki

Taiyaki is a flour-based cake in the shape of a Japanese sea bream cooked in a steel pan. Besides traditional red bean paste, the filling comes in other flavors such as custard and matcha. Cute as a button edible treat!

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Wagashi with a long shelf life

Rakugan

Rakugan is a dried wagashimade by mixing rice flour with sugar and water, colored and molded into beautiful shapes. It is prepared in many different colors and shapes reflecting seasonal themes.Enjoy its pure taste of sugar with a cup of tea, after you return back from your trip!

Castella 

Originally from Portugal, castella has been developed in Japan based on the Nanban confectionery. It is made with just eggs and flour and despite looking like a sponge cake, is very moist. Compared to fresh wagashi, castella is lighter and lasts a longer time that makes it a perfect souvenir for foodies.

Yokan

Yokan is made by pouring red bean paste into a mold and hardening it with agar-agar. If you like red bean paste, it will definitely satisfy your taste buds! Yokan is available in many sizes and is a perfect staple gift for Japanese people.  

Buying wagashi at the convenience stores  

Since wagashi is an integral part of the Japanese culture, it can be easily found at the convenience stores. Some wagashi sold in convenience stores have a westernized version, making it familiar for the first-time travelers in Japan.  

Aside from classic wagashi, there are myriads of original sweets, for example, wagashi with a whipped cream topping, larger size wagashi, and wagashi reflecting seasonal changes. Feel free to browse convenience stores near your hotel or sightseeing place to discover your favourite treat!

Summary

Wagashi can be savored literally everywhere in Japan. Each store has its own specialty and taste that is better appreciated when compared to others. Take a break at your hotel to enjoy wagashi in combination with a cup of tea, or embark on a journey to find your favourite one!