Wagashi, traditional Japanese sweets, are brightly colored and delicately flavored because they're made in the image of the beautiful nature in Japan across all seasons. They're also internationally renowed for being low calorie and healthy. In this article we will introduce some of wagashi's charms.
Wagashi, often served at tea ceremonies, are an essential factor to enhance the flavor of the tea. There are so many variations of wagashi that they simply can't be listed, but the two major categories are omogashi and higashi. Omogashi are sweets with volume that use anko (sweet bean paste, usually made from azuki beans) and gyuhi, a soft confectionery made with rice flour. Higashi are hard, dry sweets that are made with sugar and flour. Some examples of higashi are rakugan (a pressed treat of starch and sugar), aruheitou (toffee), and konpeito (a type of bumpy sugar candy). Since they're made in the image of the season, they're very detailed and are often beautiful like works of art. Also, their names are taken from places like haiku, tanka, Japanese aesthetic themes, history, and place names, so these sweets are overflowing with information that helps the eater's imagination flow. When you try wagashi, please think about where its name might come from. It is a chance to learn about ancient Japan's culture and traditions.
The presentation of wagashi
Tableware plays an essential part in presenting the beautiful, delicate wagashi. For omogashi, porcelain and lacquered bowls should be used, while higashi are displayed on flat tableware like basketware and laquered plates. Tableware is also matched to the season; for example, in the summer, glass dishes are used to give off a refreshing feeling. Pairing tableware with the beautiful wagashi is an artform in and of itself. When you try some wagashi, please also pay attention to the dishware as well.
Recommended wagashi #1: Morihachi's Choseiden Nama Jime (Kanazawa, Ishikawa)
Now that you've learned about wagashi, here are some famous examples. The city of Kanazawa in Ishikawa Prefecture flourished as the capital of the fiefdom of Kaga. It, along with Kyoto and Matsue in Shimane Prefecture, are famous for their wagashi. There are many nationally famous, long-running, locally beloved wagashi stores throughout Kanazawa, but one of their most famous is Morihachi, established in 1625. One of their most highly recomended products is their Choseiden Nama Jime (1,167 JPY (incl. tax) for 4). Choseiden is a kind of rakugan, one of Japan's top three famous wagashi. Rakugan is usually hard, but this Choseiden Nama Jime is soft and moist as though freshly taken out of its wooden mold. It dissolves quickly in one's mouth, leaving a fresh taste. It isn't something that you can find often, so make sure to pick some up if you stumble upon the store.
Recommended wagashi #2: Toraya's Mizu no Yadori (Chuo-ku, Tokyo)
Toraya is a long-established wagashi maker from Kyoto whose history goes back about 500 years. Their yokan (jelly made from sweet beans) is so famous that when one thinks of yokan, one thinks of Toraya. They have different flavors such as their Yoru no Ume yokan made with ogura-style red bean paste (made using a mixture of mashed and whole beans) starting at 260 JPY (incl. tax) and their Shin Midori yokan made with matcha (also starting at 260 JPY (incl. tax). They also have yokan made with innovative flavors like honey and tea. THe summer-limited Mizu no Yadori (starting at 1,944 for a half size (incl. tax)) uses doumyoujikan (dried, preserved rice) and kokuhakukan, a hard candy made of agar-agar. The contrast between the crisp blue and white colors used is refreshing and makes one feel like they can hear the sound of the ocean if they try. One of Toraya's characteristics is their preservation of tradition and their long history even as they explore new ideas matching today's society to create a variety of artistic sweets that are almost a waste to eat.
There are 79 branches around the country, including their Ginza company store, department stores like Matsuya, Mitsukoshi, and Takashimaya, as well as hotels like the Imperial Hotel in Hibiya or the Tokyo Station Hotel.
Recommended wagashi #3: Souke Minamoto Kitchoan's Kingyo (Chuo-ku, Tokyo)
Souke Minamoto Kitchoan, located in Ginza, carefully chooses their ingredients to create sweets that can be enjoyed with all five senses. Their wagashi are created in the image of nature throughout the changing seasons, and they have the Kajitsu Kashi Shizen series, where they use seasonal fruits as the inspiration for the shape, looks, and taste of their wagashi. It's a very popular series. Among them, their summer-limited Kingyo wagashi is especially recommended (292 JPY (incl. tax) each as of 2015). Kingyo means goldfish, and this treat is made to look like a bright red goldfish swimming inside a goldfish bowl. It's popular for its refreshing appearance and its cute packaging. There are many people who look forward to the appearance of Kingyo every year. You'll feel calmed just by looking at this refined but playful treat. It also keeps well so it's perfect as a souvenir.
Recommended wagashi #4: Sakakobo Taro's Hanako to Taro (Kanazawa, Ishikawa)
Sakakobo Taro is an up-and-coming wagashi brand that has three storefronts in Kanazawa. Their products blend Western and Japanese styles and include Taro no Yokan (260 JPY (excl. tax) each), a cacao-flavored yokan, and Yorimichi Komichi (480 JPY (excl. tax) each), a sponge cake-like sweet that combines kimishigure (a mix of white bean paste and egg yolk) with caramel. This store also created a wagashi named "Hanako to Taro" to coincide with the opening of the Hokuriku Shinkansen, the bullet train that now links Kanazawa with Tokyo. They created it by adding almonds to their standard cacao youkan, and layered that with a steamed sponge cake made with plenty of matcha powder. This blend of Western and Japanese flavors has made this particular wagashi a hit with foreign travelers that aren't used to the taste of full-blown wagashi. The package is designed with a colorful illustration of Kanazawa and the area's famous gold leaf sits on top of the snack, making it a perfect souvenir.
How did you like this article? The work of Japanese sweets is quite deep. Some people consider that the etiquette surrounding these sweets is too complicated and therefore prefer to avoid them, but in recent years, opportunities to enjoy these kinds of sweets in a more casual manner are on the rise. Make sure you try some Japanese sweets when you visit Japan - they will surely provide you with new discoveries and encounters!
*Please note that the prices and other information in the article may not be the most up-to-date information.