Learn more about the history and cultural significance of Wagashi, traditional Japanese confections. From local specialties and seasonal varieties to everyday desserts, you’d gain a much deeper appreciation as you enjoy the sweets year-round.
You may have seen beautiful pieces of sweets displayed in a confectionery section of Japanese department stores or supermarkets. Some resemble motifs from nature, such as flowers, leaves, or fruits. It may be made of bean paste, mochi, or jelly-like substance. They look more like miniature pieces of art. Are they edible? And does it taste as good as it looks?!
Called Wagashi (和菓子), these Japanese confectioneries carry a rich history entwined with Japanese culture. There’s more than meets the eye (and stomach)!
In this two-part series on Wagashi, let’s first explore its cultural and historical significance to the Japanese.
Table of contents
What is Wagashi?
The term Wagashi encompasses all Japanese desserts, from the tea ceremony delicacies to the everyday desserts. You may have seen them featured in Japanese movies or dramas, such as Dango (団子 skewered mochi balls), Dorayaki (どら焼き small pancakes sandwiching a sweet filling), or Sakura Mochi (桜餅 cherry blossom pink mochi with red bean paste inside).
Compared to European desserts, characterized by the abundance of butter and eggs, traditional Wagashi calls for minimal oil, spices, and dairy products. Most are plant-based, with minimal animal products. The main ingredients are grains such as wheat or glutinous rice flour, anko sweet red bean paste, kinako soybean powder, agar/kanten as a firming agent, and sugar. However, Wagashi masters also note trends and incorporate non-Japanese ingredients like ice cream, custard, and chocolate to create new edible delights.
Wagashi comes in all shapes and sizes, but most are small enough to be eaten within two or three bites.
Wagashi and Japanese Tea Ceremony
How does wagashi pertain to the Japanese tea ceremony? In a Japanese tea ceremony (茶道) context, Wagashi is served to accompany and complement the bitter taste of Matcha (抹茶 powdered young green tea leaves). Wagashi is always consumed before the Matcha is served and never together. The idea is that before drinking the savory and vegetal tea, you eat the sweet dessert to balance your month.
The deep appreciation of the seasons is reflected in the aesthetics of Wagashi. For example, you may see plum blossoms and cherry blossom motifs in the spring, young green bamboo leaves and fireworks in the summer, autumn foliage, chestnuts, and the harvest moon in the fall, and snow in the winter.
However, Wagashi isn’t limited to the tea ceremony scene; it can be eaten like any other dessert for midday, afternoon tea, or a post-meal dessert. You don’t need to pull out your matcha whisk and bowl; you can pair it with other green tea, non-green teas, coffee, or whatever you prefer!
To understand the world of Wagashi, let’s first understand its history.
The History of Wagashi
As stated above, the history of Wagashi and the Japanese tea ceremony (茶道) are intricately linked. It’s impossible to separate the two when approaching their respective origins.
Ancient artifacts show that the Japanese have been craving sweetness, going back to the Yayoi period (300 B.C.-300 A.C.) when the people ate the natural sweetness found in fruits and nuts.
Trade with the Sui and Tang Dynasties during the Asuka period (538-710) brought back various Chinese confectioneries. One called Kara-kudamono (唐果物), a type of deep-fried mochi made from rice, wheat, and soybeans, is said to be the origin of Wagashi. However, these delicacies were served at the Imperial Court and religious deities and not circulated among the commoners. Sugar was a luxury import good that was rare, and its primary use was for medicine.
Different types of Kara-Kudamon (Source)
Tea was introduced from China around the Kamakura period (1185-1333), and Zen monks’ habit of drinking tea was established around this time. A simple meal called Tenshin (点心 dim sum) and snacks were served as part of the ritual. As sugar was still not readily available, the sweet substance was made of the sap of grape ivy (甘葛). The meal served with the tea ceremony (茶席) became more elaborate during the Muromachi period (1336-1573), as Zen became connected with the upper Samurai class.
The availability of sugar became more widespread due to the Portuguese merchants, who introduced new cultures and cuisines to the Japanese. The Japanese aristocracy was hungry for Portuguese delicacies, and they adapted it into what was called Nanbangshi (南蛮菓子). These exotic sugar and egg-loaded sponge cake Castella (カステラ) and colorful sugar crystals Kompeito (金平糖) (from the Portuguese confectionery ‘Comfit’) were only for the nobility.
The Burgeoning of Wagashi in Japan
The demand for and production of Wagashi exploded during the Edo period (1603-1867) due to widespread commercialization throughout the country and a significant improvement in agricultural productivity. Sugarcane from Okinawa and Shikoku and processed white sugar became available in the capital (Edo) and Kyoto. This spurred the development of new Wagashi specialty stores. In parallel, the tea ceremony culture also flourished, where serving delicious sweets became one of the most critical aspects of the ceremony.
Edo-period booklets depicting various types of Wagashi.
With the fierce competition among Wagashi confectioners to meet their hungry customers’ demands, different styles with intricate designs became popular. Kyoto-styled Wagashi, Kyo-gashi (京菓子), was a beautiful edible art for the tea ceremony. In contrast, the middle-class Edo (Tokyo) craved the simpler and more approachable Jyo-gashi (上菓子).
The term Wagashi was born during the Meiji era (1868-1912), during the era of rapid modernization and westernization. Like how Washoku (和食) was a term to distinguish from foreign food cultures, Wagashi – wa (和 Japanese) and kashi/gashi (菓子 sweets) – were born.
Ready for More?
The traditions of Wagashi still live on to the present day. If you’re visiting Japan, stop by a tea shop to sample a few pieces with a cup of tea. You can find shops and stores serving wagashi in major tourist areas like Kyoto and Kanazawa and big department stores. If you’re in a small town, check out the local varieties. Some places offer classes on how to whisk a cup of matcha!
The next post will cover more of Wagashi’s different varieties and categories, covering topics such as Nerimono/Nerikiri, Higashi, and the different ingredients used to make it. Thank you for reading until the end, and stay tuned for Part 2, Varieties of Wagashi (Traditional Japanese Sweets).
To learn how to make Wagashi, check out Nami’s recipes:
- Ichigo Daifuku 苺大福
- Manju 饅頭
- Mizu Yokan 水羊羹
- Hanami Dango 花見団子
- Warabi Mochi わらび餅
- Anmitsu あんみつ
- Taiyaki たい焼き
- The Essence of Japanese Cuisine: An Essay on Food and Culture (Source)
- The Japan Wagashi Association (Source Removed)
- National Diet Library, Japan (Source)
- Wagashi: Japanese traditional sweets or works of art? (Source Removed)
- 全国菓子工業組合連合会（全菓連) (Source Removed)