Terms of Production Method
The Japanese have an admirable way of translating the seasons, nature, and other phenomena into a variety of art forms. Many of the things tourists will encounter in Japan are sure to be inspired by some sort of occurrence, one way or another. Foreigners should always take a moment to appreciate the many obvious and subtle ways Japan’s activities and products represent the country’s culture and beliefs to fully maximize their trip.
The more obvious ones, of course, are theatrical performances and ethnic rituals while some subtle ones include the preparation and presentation of local cuisine. Besides the popular traditional tea ceremony, another art form falling under the gastronomical aspect of the Japanese culture is wagashi, or traditional Japanese sweets.
Wagashi: Traditional Japanese Sweets
Wagashi refers to the traditional confections of Japan often served alongside tea. Its origin dates back to the Yayoi Period when fruits and nuts were its primary ingredients, and was initially called kashi, the Japanese term for sweets.
Come the Nara Period, the grain processing methods of China found its way to Japan. This greatly influenced their cuisine and soon produced two of Japan’s now well-known snacks – mochi and dango, both made from rice.
Up to this period, sugar remained an expensive and rare commodity which was only used for medicinal purposes. The Japanese cuisine greatly depended on the natural flavors of their ingredients until the Heian Period, when amazura, a sweetener produced from Japanese ivy, was developed.
By the end of the Muromachi Period, sugar had finally become a common ingredient in Japan thanks to trade transactions with Portugal and Spain. Along with many new flavors and discoveries, the Japanese adapted the foreign countries’ cakes and sweets into their culture, as well, and referred to it as nanbangshi.
Back then, nanbangshi was reserved for the elite. It was only during the Edo Period when commercialization started that it became accessible to other social classes. At the same time, these confections also started appearing at traditional tea ceremonies. With the tea ceremony being one of Japan’s many cultural activities inspired by poetry and literature, nanbangshi had to be modified to also reflect similar principles.
Confectioners in Kyoto dedicated themselves to creating intricate designs with corresponding names inspired by the seasons and nature. By the Meiji Period, these sweets, as well as newly introduced desserts from the West, were called wagashi, meaning Japanese (wa) sweets (kashi).
Wagashi as an Art of the Five Senses
As said, the Japanese have a habit of making simple things into art. Wagashi is no exception to this and is considered as a form of stimulating the five senses:
Wagashi appeals to the sense of sight by evoking Japan’s seasons, landscape, literature, and culture. They come in a variety of designs that brilliantly make use of shapes and colors.
Taste is the primary sense used in the wagashi experience. They are majorly made from different beans and grains with distinct flavors.
Wagashi also appeals to the sense of touch by providing different textures to be felt by the hand and mouth. By taking them by the hand, cutting them into smaller pieces, and placing them in the mouth, their crispness, moistness, and softness reveal their ingredients’ quality and freshness.
The delicate fragrances of wagashi appeal to the sense of smell. The subtle aromas of their ingredients are very pleasing and do not overpower each other.
The poetic and lyrical names of Wagashi pleasantly appeal to the sense of sound. Many of these names come from classical Japanese poetry.
Wagashi are usually made from natural and plant-based ingredients such as anko (azuki or red bean paste), fruits, and grains. They can be classified according to their production method and moisture content. The latter is very important as this dictates the confection’s shelf life.
In Terms of Production Method
- Mushi mono – refers to steamed wagashi
- Nagashi mono – refers to jellied wagashi
- Neri mono – refers to kneaded wagashi
- Oshi mono – refers to pressed wagashi
- Uchi mono – refers to molded wagashi
- Yaki mono – refers to baked wagashi
In Terms of Moisture Content
- Namagashi – also known as wet wagashi. These have a moisture content of 30% or more.
- Han Namagashi – also known as half-wet wagashi. These have a moisture content of 10-30%.
- Higashi – also known as dry wagashi. These have a moisture content of 10% or less.
Common Wagashi Types and Names
Dango is a popular type of wagashi in Japan. It follows a relatively simple recipe that primarily makes use of rice flour or other grain-based flours. The flour is mixed with water to create a dough that is then boiled or steamed. From there, several flavor variations can be made. They are usually skewered on sticks and topped with a bean paste or salty-sweet sauce.
Monaka makes use of glutinous rice flour to form a thin dough that is placed into a mold then baked. This baked shell comes in different forms that range from simple to intricate shapes and sizes. The most commonly sold monakas in Japan come in circles. Some stores sell more eccentric monakas that come in the shape of trains and anime characters. It usually has a red bean jam filling but also comes in other varieties such as ice cream monaka and chestnut monaka.
Yatsuhashi is one of Kyoto’s most famous regional products that is often sold as a souvenir. It has a distinct cinnamon scent and unique texture similar to that of an earlobe. Its main ingredients are rice flour, sugar, and cinnamon. The traditional sweet can be served baked or unbaked and goes well with red bean paste.
Uiro, which also goes by the name uiro-mochi, is a steamed wagashi that makes use of rice flour and sugar. Its chewy texture is similar to mochi and has a subtle sweetness to it. It has several regional variations, particularly in Nagoya, Yamaguchi, and Odawara. However, in Odawara, it is often used for medicinal purposes. Common uiro flavors include green tea, strawberry, red bean paste, and chestnut.
Kintsuba makes use of red bean jam but is different from other red bean wagashi because of its thin outer shell. A mixture of water and wheat flour is used to coat the red bean jam and is then lightly fried. Its name comes from the Japanese word tsuba, used to refer to the hilt guard of a sword, which the wagashi resembles.
Manju is Japan’s variation of the Chinese manto bun. It is made by steaming or baking a sweet bean paste filled bun. Traditionally, it comes in a round and smooth shape. There are many other varieties available in Japan that use different fillings and ingredients, the most popular ones being mizu manju (made from arrowroot flour) and momiji manju (made with eggs and sugar).
Namagashi, as previously mentioned, is also known as wet wagashi. This is the type of wagashi served at tea ceremonies. It is made by delicately shaping rice flour-based dough into images that reflect the seasons. A sweet bean paste is often used for its filling.
Daifuku is made by wrapping mochi around small pieces of smooth filling. It is coated with a light dust of potato starch to keep it from sticking to surfaces or other wagashi. Daifuku becomes hard when exposed to the environment for long periods of time so it should be eaten quickly. The common kinds of daifuku include ice cream, strawberry, and sweet bean.
Taiyaki refers to fish-shaped wagashi. It makes use of a batter similar to that of pancakes and is often filled with sweet bean paste. It is cooked on a grill and is best eaten hot. Other common fillings include chocolate, cheese, and custard.
Must-Try Cafes, Bakeries, and Shops in Tokyo for Traditional Japanese Sweets and Tea
For the best wagashi, regardless of type, tourists should make it a point to visit at least one of these Tokyo-based shops:
- Echigoya Wakasa
Echigoya Wakasa is famous for serving different flavors of yokan, an old kind of jellied wagashi. Some of their common flavors include green tea, red bean, and black sugar. Since the 1700s, it has been the go-to place for yokan. The price for a small box of yokan is a bit steep but makes for a great souvenir with its long shelf life.
Chimoto is a dessert café that is popular for their different kinds of traditional Japanese sweets and candy. Their original wagashi is called the yumochi and is often bought as a regional souvenir. The snack basically consists of white mochi squares and yokan strips, and comes in a leaf packaging. Another highly recommended item on their menu is the Kakigori, a cool and sweet dessert.
Kasoyo is a kimono store that has an irregularly open café overlooking a garden filled with seasonal flowers. The store is located inside a traditional Japanese house, built over 100 years ago. They serve a variety of Japanese sweets and traditional green tea.
Kuuya has been selling monaka for more than a century. Customers can buy a box of 10 for a few more cents over ¥1,000. Each box has a shelf life of 7 days and makes for a great souvenir. However, a purchase is only possible with a reservation.
- Higashiya Ginza
Higashiya Ginza is a café that offers a Zen atmosphere for customers to relax after hours of shopping in Ginza. The place is among the top picks for afternoon tea and wagashi. They are located on the 2nd floor of the Pola Ginza building and are open from 11 AM to 10 PM from Tuesdays to Saturdays.
Nagato is another one of Japan’s confectioners that have been around for centuries. They have seasonal wagashi called hannamagashi, which are often served at tea ceremonies. Their kuzumochi, or mochi cakes, are also highly recommended.
- Zen Kashoin
Zen Kashoin is located on the 5th floor of the Shibuya Hikarie building. The café goes by the philosophy that “both flowers and sweets should be as they are”. They are famous for their ranmitsu, a paper-baked sponge cake. Their other highly recommended items include red bean paste-filled pancakes and black tea.
Usagiya is located in Ueno and is known for its Dorayaki, a pancake-type wagashi filled with red bean paste. They have been baking fresh dorayaki every day since 1914 and are believed to be the original inventors of the favorite snack food.
- Café IMASA
Café IMASA is located in one of Chiyoda ward’s cultural properties that was built in 1927. It used to be a shop house for a timber merchant but now houses a few pieces of modern furniture. Paying a visit to this café for traditional tea and sweets will give customers a gastronomical and cultural experience.
Ikkouan is a popular store among wagashi experts. They only use high-quality ingredients and specializes in making warabimochi, a jelly-like summer dessert made from bracken starch. The ingredient is not cheap or abundant in Japan but Ikkouan still manages to make warabimochi using 100% bracken starch.
Sasama changes their menu items according to the seasons. They have a new theme each month to reflect the colors of the environment and nature. Besides their focus on the aesthetics of their wagashi, they also maintain a consistent quality to their red bean-based products. Many of their customers come back for visual masterpieces that double as flavorful indulgences.
The Basic Sweet Bean Paste and Chestnut Wagashi Recipe to Try at Home
Wagashi obviously has a lot of different variations, some a bit more complicated to make than others. For foreigners who want to try making wagashi at home, this basic recipe ensures an easy process and authentic taste:
- 15 grams of sweet bean paste
- 25 grams of butter
- 80 grams of sugar
- 200 grams of pastry flour
- ½ tsp of baking soda
- 1 whole egg
- 1 egg yolk
- Combine and mix the sweet bean paste, butter, and sugar in a large bowl.
- Beat 1 whole egg and 1 egg yolk in a separate bowl.
- Gradually add the beaten eggs into the large bowl.
- Cook the mixture over a low heat using a double boiler until the sugar dissolves entirely.
- Remove the mixture from the heat. Sift the pastry flour and baking soda onto the mixture.
- Mix and fold to create a smooth dough.
- Cover with plastic wrap and set aside for 30 minutes.
- 625 grams of sweet bean paste
- 10 pieces of cooked chestnut
- Chop the chestnuts.
- Combine and mix the sweet bean paste and chopped chestnut.
- Divide the mixture into 25 portions.
- Knead the dough on a heavily floured surface until its stickiness disappears.
- Divide the dough to form 25 pieces of neatly formed balls
- Flatten the balls and use to individually cover the portions of filling.
- Place on top of a parchment paper-lined cookie sheet.
Egg Wash Ingredients:
- 1 egg yolk
- A few dashes of sweet rice wine
- Combine the egg yolk and sweet rice wine in a small bowl.
- Apply a light egg wash on top of each ball.
- Bake for 15 – 18 minutes in a 350ᵒ F oven.