It’s said that when babies are born they respond most to smells of sweet and oily food. In this respect, I’m still a baby, and I know quite a few people who share this description with me 😉.
But more than fatty things, I love sweets. Love them? I’m crazy about them! I can’t go without something sweet to eat, and I always like tasting new sweets.
In most of the countries I’ve been to, in the East or in the West, I didn’t find unique sweets that I hadn’t encountered before. There were a few interesting combinations, but that’s where it more or less ended.
All of this changed the moment I landed in Japan.
The world of Japanese sweets is surprising in every respect: tastes, textures, ingredients, combinations and appearance. When I say Japanese sweets, I’m referring to the traditional confections called Wagashi.
While it’s true that Japan has extremely impressive desserts borrowed from the western world (and as with everything the Japanese do, they take these to the highest level), in this post I’ll just be referring to Wagashi, the traditional Japanese desserts.
So what are they made of? What kinds are there? And where’s the most highly recommended place to eat them in Japan? You’ll find all the answers in this post.
What exactly are Wagashi?
Wagashi is a collective term referring to Japanese sweets made mostly of rice flour, anko (sweet azuki beans) and fruits. In the 15th and 16th centuries, sugar became increasingly common in Japan and became a staple in all households. Over time, eating Wagashi became associated with drinking Japanese green tea, matcha, which I’ve written about at length in this post.
And why are these sweets called Wagashi? “wa” denotes everything Japanese. For example, washi is Japanese paper, which you probably recognize from the brand of colorful tape by the same name.
“kashi”, or with a different pronunciation, “gashi”, is a collective term for sweets and snacks, which in everyday Japanese are referred to as okashi.
“wa” + “gashi” simply means “Japanese sweets”. Since traditionally virtually no milk was consumed in Japan, there are almost no dairy products in Japanese sweets (although this isn’t always the case), and generally they don’t contain eggs either, so they’re suitable for vegans or those who prefer to avoid these or other animal products. Even with sweets that seem to have gelatin, in most cases the source of the gelatinous texture is agar-agar.
There are loads of kinds, so I’ll introduce you to the main ones and what I think about them.
Kinds of Wagashi
Here are a few kinds of Wagashi you’ll be able to find throughout Japan. Some of them have a number of flavors, shapes and types:
This is a sweetish cookie made from rice dough. Sometimes it’s sweeter and other times it has virtually no sweetness at all. There are various kinds of mochi – harder and stickier, or softer and sweeter.
I recommend you try sakuramochi, which is common in Japan around the cherry blossom season. Sakuramochi is wrapped in a sakura leaf with a subtle bitter taste, and the soft, sweet mochi inside tastes faintly of cherry. Perhaps it sounds strange, but it’s really delicious! To those of you who are fond of sweetness, I can also highly recommend warabimochi, transparent cubes covered in sweet powder made from you won’t believe what (spoiler alert: soybeans).
Sakura mochi. One of my favorite Wagashi.
This is also made of rice dough, but in a slightly different way. Dango comes in little balls on a stick and is generally covered in a thick, sweet sauce, but not always. Different kinds of dango are customarily served in the different seasons, like the green, white and pink dango served in March during the Hina Festival that I wrote about in this post.
Perhaps my favorite Wagashi! This is also a sweet made of (you guessed it) rice dough, stuffed with azuki beans. It’s a kind served during Japanese tea ceremonies. I’m particularly fond of namagashi because it’s extremely soft and is generally the right level of sweetness (for someone like me who likes dark chocolate).
Another thing that’s special about namagashi is the designer shapes it comes in. These shapes are handmade, which makes me appreciate namagashi even more.
One of my favorite Japanese desserts in summer. It’s a combination of several things: the base is cubes of sweet jelly made from agar-agar, and it’s served with anko, sweet beans, gyūhi (a kind of mochi), and sometimes fruit too. The dessert is served with a sweet syrup you can pour on all of this goodness.
A sweet jelly that comes in azuki/matcha flavor or just sugar. It’s nice, nothing more. If you’re already trying Wagashi, I wouldn’t recommend trying this first, because it’s simply the least special (in my opinion).
Okay, here Japanese creativity is really expressed. It’s a pancake sandwich with sweet azuki beans. Sounds strange? Try it out, and believe me, you’ll ask yourselves: Why didn’t we think of this before? It’s one of the combinations of western sweets and Asian sweets that simply work well together! A bit like omurice 😉.
And now that we’re a bit more familiar with the Japanese sweets, the time has come to get to know where to eat them.
Recommended places to get Wagashi
With dim lighting and terrific design, Higashiya is one of the most interesting places you can sit down for an authentic Wagashi experience. Don’t expect to see too many tourists there – the place is appreciated by locals, who visit it every day. What I like about it is mostly the option to order a set of Wagashi, which lets you try out different kinds without having to order multiple dishes.
Warning: it’s not cheap!
A smaller place in Tokyo’s Ueno neighborhood where you can find all kinds of sweets. Its flagship dish is its dorayaki, but full disclosure: I’ve never tasted it, because it isn’t vegan. Of course, there are many other sweets on the menu.
Japanese sweets, a cup of matcha and amazing architecture – what else could you ask for? The Toraya chain brings all these things together, with a unique atmosphere combining traditional Japanese confections with modern Japanese architecture. The chain has several branches of stores throughout Japan, such as tea houses (like the ones in Tokyo and Kyoto), and even a flagship store in Paris. Not a bad place at all to try Wagashi.
One of the most famous Wagashi stores in Kyoto. You can always easily identify the store, because there’s always a queue of locals (don’t worry – it moves quite quickly). While there’s nowhere to sit down and eat there, it’s only a five minute walk from the Kamo River, where you can sit down to eat on its banks.
Okashi Tsukasa Komaki (御菓子司こまき)
A lovely tea house in Kamakura near Tokyo. If you’re already going there to see the giant Buddha, why not sit down for some Wagashi and tea on the way? A delightful little place.
Wishing you all a pleasant and delicious culinary journey!
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