Wagashi (和菓子) are traditional Japanese sweets. Their origin can be traced all the way back to over 2,000 years ago! At that time, nuts were ground into power, and rolled into a paste to form what is known today as dango (団子). That’s also the time when mochi was made, which is regarded as Japan’s oldest processed food!
Wagashi are often enjoyed with a nice cup of green tea. You can find them in all kinds of shapes and consistencies, prepared with a wide range of ingredients and techniques. Every wagashi is unique! Some of them are enjoyed throughout the country, whereas others are regional, or seasonal.
These sweets took a big turn at the end of the 19th century. After the beginning of the Meiji period (from 1869), Japan started trading with the rest of the world. New tools and machines such as ovens entered Japan, and with this innovation, new wagashi were born. Baked products became very popular, and all these transformations led to today’s diversity!
So, what are the types of wagashi? Read more to discover some of the best Japanese wagashi, and wagashi recipes!
Officially, there is no definition of what a wagashi is. And therefore, there are many different kinds, and new ones are born even today! However, it’s still possible to categorize them, mostly based on the ingredients, or preparation techniques. Here is a general classification.
・Mochimono (made with rice mochi): Kashiwamochi, Daifuku, Ohagi, etc.
・Mushimono (steamed): Mushimanju, Kurimushiyokan, etc.
・Yakimono (baked) Hiranabemono: Dorayaki, Sakuramochi, etc. Obunmono: Kurimanju, Castella, etc.
・Nagashimono (made from a mold): Yokan, etc.
・Nerimono (made by shaping bean paste): Nerikiri, Konashi, etc.
・Okamono (made by combining unique ingredients): Monaka, etc.
・Uchimono (formed in a mold, and beaten): Rakugan, etc.
Now you’re wondering, what are they made of?
Once again, there are no official rules as to what can, and cannot be used in a wagashi. That’s good for us, because it means more diversity and more things to try out ! One thing most wagashi have in common however, is the use of vegetable based ingredients. Actually, besides chicken eggs, barely animal products are used for the confection!
Some of the most frequently used ingredients are beans such as azuki beans, white azuki beans, kidney beans, peas, etc. Of course, rice is also a staple ingredient in wagashi preparation, all kinds of rice: glutinous rice,non-glutinous rice,etc. Rice flour as well, and wheat flour, sugar (caster sugar, granulated sugar, brown sugar, refined Japanese sugar, etc.), agar-agar, kudzu starch, chestnuts, tubers, persimmons, Japanese apricots, sesame, and green tea as well as chicken eggs.
One of the main ingredients in a lot of wagashi is sweet azuki bean paste (anko). To make it, Japanese artisans boil azuki beans and sweeten them with sugar. Then, they are mashed to create either smooth anko (koshian) or chunky anko (tsubuan).
So, now, the question you’ve been wanting to ask: what are the most popular wagashi? Without further ado, let’s get down to discover some of our favorites, and soon to be yours!
Mochi. Probably the most famous of all wagashi, is made with sweet rice and has the most varieties among all wagashi. If you know a little bit about mochi, the image of a sweet azuki bean paste filled mochi probably came to mind. That’s most likely Kashiwa Mochi, and it is indeed the most popular. You’ll usually see it wrapped in kashiwa (oak) leaves.
Other popular options are sakura mochi, in a lovely pink, and wrapped in sakura cherry blossom leaves. Warabimochi are also quite famous, more chewy and translucent than others, covered in sweetened kinako soybean powder and sometimes drizzled with syrup!
Of course, every region has its own way to produce mochi. Here in Osaka, the most notorious one is Keshi Mochi, covered with aromatic poppy seeds.
This is a very classic wagashi. Dango are small, sticky dumplings made of kneaded sweet rice or non-glutinous rice flour. Most of the time you’ll find them skewered on a stick 3 by 3. You might have seen the pink, white and brown dango rows in some images: it’s called hanami dango!
They have a long history! Some documents trace the origin of dango back to the Heian period (794-1185 CE,). Well-loved dango include Mitarashi Dango with thick sweet soy sauce.
It looks like a mochi. It feels like a mochi. But it’s not (exactly) a mochi, it’s a daifuku! They are also filled with azuki bean paste. However, they are perfectly round.
They were typical sweets for people in the Edo period (1603-1868 CE,). Lightly powdered with sugar, Uzura-mochi are said to be the first form of daifuku.
Artisans who specialized in the production of wagashi came up with a lot of different ideas over time to produce new and original daifuku. For example Mame Daifuku, which includes black soy beans in addition to the sweet azuki! Double the pleasure wrapped in a mochi-like ball.
Ichigo Daifuku have also become super popular in the last few decades and include a whole fresh strawberry inside! Yummy yummy!
Source: Cooking with dog
Who doesn’t love some fluffy azuki bean paste filled buns? Usually steamed but also baked, manju are a delight for your taste buds. They can come in a lot of varieties, such as cha manju, made from a flour and brown sugar based dough, very common in Japan’s onsens (hotsprings).
Some are made with yam flour, such as Joyo Manju. They are often used as a gift on special occasions in Japan. However, the OG manju is said to be sake manju, which has a sake-flavored skin! Very popular among the tourists!
Tai, is a popular fish in Japan, and yaki means to grill, or fry. The name therefore comes from the shape. It’s a waffle-like wagashi, mostly filled with… you guessed it, azuki sweet bean paste! You can find a lot of stores selling this speciality across the country, but people are still debating today where it actually came from.
A few theories link it to Imagawayaki, a kind of pancake popular during the Meiji period (1868-1912 CE.). It’s so popular, that in 1975 a song dedicated to this treat was released and holds the Guinness World Record for most copies sold of a children’s song with over 4.5 million copies.
A foreign import! The Portuguese first brought the castella cake to Japan when they landed in Nagasaki many centuries ago (1336-1573 CE.). Kasutera, as they say in Japan, is basically a sponge cake with 3 main ingredients: flour, eggs, and sugar.
The original dish that inspired the Kasutera is said to be the pão de ló. What made this cake so popular in Japan, is that it required a new innovative cooking method, which nobody in Japan has used until then!
Even today, this is still a delicacy.
Source: the spruce eats
Another classic: yokan is a quite firm, yet jelly-like bean snack, also made from a mix of azuki beans, sugar, and kanten agar. The 3 ingredients are kneaded and cooked before being hardened in a mold.
The original word yokan was actually used to describe a chinese lamb stew, which had been jellified for transportation purposes! However, Buddhist traditions in Japan forbid the consumption of meat at that time, and the lamb has been replaced by azuki beans! This goes back to the Muromachi period (1185-1573 CE.).
Nowadays, a new version of this wagashi, called Mizu Yokan (literally “water yokan,”), is very similar to western style jelly. It has a very high water content, and is firmer than regular yokan. It’s very popular in summer, and you can see it on the image above.
Have you heard of omotenashi (Japanese hospitality)? Nerikiri is the go-to wagashi for tea ceremonies. The bean pasted used for the production is thickened with either yam or flour, and molded with care into seasonal flowers! Plums and hydrangea are very popular, but many more options are available. This treat goes back to the Edo period, and it’s really a work of art highlighting the skills of the makers.
You know Doraemon? That lovely cat character from the popular manga and anime has a favorite treat: dorayaki. It’s a sweet bean paste sandwich! Kind of. The paste is gently spread between two delicious pancake patties!
There are new variations that don’t use the azuki bean paste, but things like custard, or whipped cream. Fill it to your liking!
The last one on our list of popular wagashi: namagashi (lit. raw sweets). They are traditional Japanese sweets made of rice flour with a… wait for it: sweet bean paste filling. These delicacies are often shaped by hand to reflect the season. Namagashi are also served during the traditional tea ceremony.
Hokkaidō is famous for snow, skiing, nature, beautiful landscapes and the Sapporo Snow Festival. But thanks to the unsuspecting Gokatte-gumi, a group of families that arrived in the region back in the 1600s, Hokkaidō also offers some delicious sweets! I name Gokatteya Marukan Yōkan. It’s a jellied sweet made from beans, agar and sugar.
The treat is often shaped in a cylinder, and packaged in a lovely cardboard tube that you can use to keep your hands clean while savouring this nordic delight!
The main store is located in the town of Esashi, southern Hokkaidō, but the popularity of the sweet has made it available in many other souvenir shops in the region! It’s hard to get by elsewhere in Japan though, making your trip to the north even more worthwhile!
Another unique type of mochi, coming to you from Aomori! That’s the northernmost prefecture on Japan’s main Honshu island. Beko-mochi actually originally came from Hokkaidō, and was first put out to sell to celebrate Boys’ Day (Tango no Sekku).
Beko-mochi used to be brown and white, from the two types of sugar used in the confection. The name, beko, comes from the word cow in the local dialect, and is said to have been used for the mochi because of the two colors.
Local artisans have long experienced with the design, patterns and colors, and this resulted in the many varieties of the sweet available today. Each confectionner developed its own speciality, and you can find a lot of cool beko-mochi in the Aomori Shimokita Peninsula!
We’re staying in the north with some tasty Tofu Castella, a traditional sweet from the southern part of Akita Prefecture. Sugar, eggs and salt are mixed to pressed and crumbled tofu, then comes a smooth custard before cooking it all in a long rectangular mould over a hotplate.
This soft, sweet delicacy takes its name from the Portuguse Castella sponge cake. But as you can see, this version has a twist in its ingredients: tofu! The most famous maker of this Tofu Castella is probably Tsujiya, a one hundred year old wagashi maker in the town of Daisen, near Akita.
Date Masamune was a famous warlord who, for a long time, resisted the expansion of Oda Nobunaga before finally contributing to the unification of Japan. His clan is also the founder of the city of Sendai, and that’s where the Date clan also developed their own dagashi!
They had to provide supplies to their troops during the warring state period, and eventually make gifts to the Shogunate and the imperial court. Sendai hoshi-ii, dried rice, was used to make the unique treats from the region.
Nowadays, Sendai dagashi can be bought in many different places, and have a lot of different varieties! You’ll have to travel there yourself to give them a try! Some popular ones include: kinako-nejiri (soy flour twists), goma-nejiri (sesame twists), usagi-tama (rabbit balls!) and gobō-kiri (burdock slice).
If you can’t come to Japan, luckily for you, a few confectioneries have opened overseas! The most famous ones might be Minamoto Kitchoan and Toraya, with a few locations worldwide such as Paris, London or New York City.
Source: Minamoto Kitchoan Homepage
Minamoto Kitchoan is famous for using its own farm to produce fresh ingredients for their wagashi! Founded in 1946, the flagship store is located in Ginza, Tokyo. However, they have expanded across the world, and you’ll find some delicious Hanaoto or Suikanshuku in their stores as well as a lot of seasonal treats!
Source: Toraya Homepage
Toraya, official supplier to the Imperial Court since the reign of Emperor Goyôzei (1586-1611), and builds upon 5 centuries of expertise. Toraya has been open since 1980 in Paris, and has welcomed plenty of famous people at their tea salon, as well as held many exhibitions. Namagashi, as well as other wagashi only prepared for the Paris store are available to eat there, and for take away!
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