July 17, 2020

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Wagashi is a broad term used to describe traditional Japanese confections that are typically enjoyed with green tea. Wagashi translates to “Japanese sweets” or “Japanese snacks” and was coined during the Meiji period (1868-1912) in order to differentiate it from European sweets after Japan’s isolationist period came to an end. Wagashi predates its name, however, and became popular in Japan during the Edo period (1603-1868) when Japanese tea ceremonies were becoming more common. Chinese confections and dim sum are cited as some of the original inspiration for these traditional Japanese snacks, but since their creation, wagashi have become a unique expression and celebration of Japanese culture!

Yatsuhashi, thin mochi folded in half and filled with red bean paste

yatsuhashi

Wagashi often feature beautiful and intricate designs which make them works of art along with being delicious treats. The designs and flavors of wagashi can vary based on region, season, or simply the artisan’s own vision. An example of regional wagashi is yatsuhashi, a popular miyagegashi (souvenir sweet) from Kyoto.

Sakura mochi, mochi wrapped with salted sakura leaf and filled with red bean paste

sakura mochi

As for seasonal wagashi, there are different types sold during each season of the year, including the popular spring-time sakura mochi. There are specific motifs used in the design of seasonal wagashi, which typically include sakura for spring, water for summer, leaves for autumn, and snow for winter. There are also certain flavors used in seasonal wagashi. Autumn, for example, features warm flavors like chestnut and persimmon.

Manju, a type of mushimono. A bun filled with red bean paste.
Kasutera, a type of yakimono. Japanese style of square-shaped cake
Yokan, a type of nagashimono. Jelly made with red bean paste.

mushimono (left), yakimono (middle), nagashimono (right)

There are many variations of wagashi, but an easy way to categorize them is by method of making them. The Tokyo Wagashi Association breaks wagashi down into eight categories:

  • Mochimono: made with rice mochi
  • Mushimono: made by steaming
  • Yakimono: made by baking
  • Nagashimono: made using a mold
  • Nerimono: made by shaping bean paste
  • Okamono: made by combining separate ingredients
  • Uchimono: made using a mold and hardened through beating
Dorayaki, a type of namagashi. Sandwich filled with red bean paste
Monaka, a type of han namagashi. Crunchy shells filled with red bean paste
Senbei, a type of higashi. Japanese traditional crackers

namagashi (left), han namagashi (middle), higashi (right)

Another way to categorize wagashi is by moisture content, which further condenses wagashi into three categories: namagashi has a moisture content of 30% or higher, han namagashi is between 10-30%, and higashi is below 10%. These many categories of wagashi show just how broad the term is and how many different types exist.

strawberry daifuku, mochi filled with red bean paste and strawberry
rakugan, sugar and soybean powder pressed down into cherry blossom shape

strawberry daifuku (left), rakugan (right)

While modern influences can inspire experimentation with wagashi, traditional wagashi are mostly plant-based, containing no dairy and using agar as opposed to gelatin for texture. Because of the use of natural ingredients, wagashi are considered to be healthier than the typical western sweets which feature processed ingredients and high sugar content. Some of the most common ingredients in wagashi are anko, or bean paste, rice, fruit, and nuts. Common types of wagashi include mochi, daifuku, nerikiri, and rakugan.

nerikiri, wagashi made with white bean paste and mochi

Nerikiri is a type of wagashi that allows for a lot of creativity, as it is made from white bean paste and mochi, and can be shaped by hand into various designs. Many of the beautifully intricate wagashi that you see pictures of on social media are likely made this way!

You deserve authentic Japanese treats

Because of its popularity, there are many different places that sell wagashi in Japan. There are wagashi shops that focus solely on selling wagashi that can be found in various locations, including train stations and airports for a convenient last-minute purchase. Since wagashi are a popular gift in Japan, these shops usually offer beautiful selections of wagashi that you can get in a nice box to give to a loved one. Other shops may sell wagashi along with other food items and drinks. Wagashi are also sold in many tea salons, where patrons can enjoy a hot cup of tea paired with some delicious traditional Japanese confections.

Nerikiri served with matcha

Wagashi are not only used to represent the seasons, but they are also used to celebrate certain festivals and events. They are often given as gifts during festivals and as a special gift for one’s guests. Wagashi also continue to be served during Japanese tea ceremonies, but they are also enjoyed with a casual cup of tea as well. The sweetness of wagashi pairs especially well with the bitterness of green tea and the earthiness of matcha. Ultimately, wagashi are much more than a delicious Japanese snack; they are a beautiful artistic representation of Japanese culture and they continue to hold significance in Japanese festivals, tea ceremonies, and everyday life.

Courtney Thompson
Courtney Thompson

Courtney is a writer and editor with a bachelor's degree in English literature. When she's not writing, she enjoys cooking and going to concerts.