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Wagashi - Traditional Japanese Sweets

Updated on September 4, 2014

Seasonally celebrating the freshness of food and nature

Wagashi are traditional Japanese desserts, not quite cakes and not quite candies. They are made from rice flour and bean pastes, but some also contain things that might be more recognizable to Westerners such as eggs and sugar. The varieties change with and honor the seasons. The ingredients are supposed to be as fresh as the cook can get them, made and eaten in a very short amount of time. Most often, wagashi are part of the traditional tea ceremony and are eaten before you drink the ritual bowl of matcha tea. However there are also wagashi bakeries or stores that exist just to sell these delicious treats, and the love of wagashi has definitely spread beyond Japan.

I know this has now gone beyond an interest and become a passion because every time I travel, one of the first things I do is see if there's some place to get wagashi! The trio you see here are from Seattle confectionery Tokara, which produces traditional Japanese sweets.

the inside of a fern mochi
the inside of a fern mochi

So, what's inside those things?

demystifying wagashi

What you see here is a delightful mochi, called "At A Mountain Road." (it's filed with Japanese yam) This is a traditional one, not a modern, Western one. Modern mochi are usually found at sushi restaurants or in the freezer section at the grocery store and are a steamed rice wrapper enclosing a ball of ice cream. With traditional mochi that are part of the world of wagashi, the insides are usually a sweetened bean paste and the outside might be wheat-based or rice. This is a sweet to the Japanese palate, but might not seem very sweet at all to a modern American tongue.

There's a photo gallery further down this lens on the Anatomy of Wagashi, where you can look at some of the outsides and insides of the different styles if you wish.

Seasonal Tastes - wagashi throughout the year

Click thumbnail to view full-size
January wagashiFebruary wagashiMarch wagashiApril wagashiMay wagashiJune wagashiJuly wagashiAugust wagashiSeptember wagashiOctober wagashiNovember wagashiDecember wagashi
January wagashi
January wagashi | Source
February wagashi
February wagashi | Source
March wagashi
March wagashi | Source
April wagashi
April wagashi | Source
May wagashi
May wagashi | Source
June wagashi
June wagashi | Source
July wagashi
July wagashi | Source
August wagashi
August wagashi | Source
September wagashi
September wagashi | Source
October wagashi
October wagashi | Source
November wagashi
November wagashi | Source
December wagashi
December wagashi | Source

Wagashi Assortments

Where you just are curious about taking a taste or if you need some wagashi fast, or if you don't think you are up to making your own, here are some samplers you can order. I strongly recommend that people taste and explore the different varieties before they take on the challenge of making their own.

See the World of Wagashi

Since wagashi are most often eaten for special occasions, many Japanese people don't make their own and instead buy them from specialty bakeries or manufacturers. Here is a look at large and small-scale wagashi making.

When you start to explore wagashi, it seems like the number of styles is endless. Actually it probably only numbers in the hundreds. As you eat them over the different seasons, you'll find that there are some traditional forms which come up again and again and others which are much more rare. Here are some of the types you will see in different colors and with different decorations to suit the time of year.

Mochi - these are little balls of bean paste wrapped in a covering of sticky rice dough. You may have had the Americanized version filled with ice cream at your local sushi restaurant for dessert.

Manju - these look a lot like mochi but they are a wheat dough wrapped around a filling of sweetened Japanese yam.

Yokan - these are small chunks of very firm jelly, made from agar agar (a seaweed).

Kinton - these artful balls are entirely made from bean paste with the outer layers being more brightly colored and pushed through a sieve to form tiny squiggles that get clumped around a regular bean paste filling.

Broaden Your Wagashi Education - for cooks and serious afficianados

Wagashi
Wagashi

Fear not, you won't need to be able to read Japanese to use this cookbook! Great pictures and recipes will guide you but remember this isn't a type of cooking learned quickly or easily.

 

Anatomy of Wagashi - a closer look at the early spring confections

Click thumbnail to view full-size
This wagashi is called Velvet Peach.  Outside is a rice dough layer, topped with rice flakes.  The pink tint is from coloring inside.Inside is very rich, super-silky-smooth, sweet bean paste.  A bright pink, thin dough layer muffled by the outer dough is the blush of the peach.Here was a trio that were available on weekday in March 2014.Here they are at home, unwrapped and on a plate together.The outside is a super-soft rice dough, around silky bean paste.  The dough crushes and tears at the slightest pressure.This is a core of super-sticky, sweet rice, wrapped in a layer of coarse-texture, bean paste.This is a sheet of rice dough, folded around a filing of pink, sweet bean paste.
This wagashi is called Velvet Peach.  Outside is a rice dough layer, topped with rice flakes.  The pink tint is from coloring inside.
This wagashi is called Velvet Peach. Outside is a rice dough layer, topped with rice flakes. The pink tint is from coloring inside.
Inside is very rich, super-silky-smooth, sweet bean paste.  A bright pink, thin dough layer muffled by the outer dough is the blush of the peach.
Inside is very rich, super-silky-smooth, sweet bean paste. A bright pink, thin dough layer muffled by the outer dough is the blush of the peach.
Here was a trio that were available on weekday in March 2014.
Here was a trio that were available on weekday in March 2014.
Here they are at home, unwrapped and on a plate together.
Here they are at home, unwrapped and on a plate together.
The outside is a super-soft rice dough, around silky bean paste.  The dough crushes and tears at the slightest pressure.
The outside is a super-soft rice dough, around silky bean paste. The dough crushes and tears at the slightest pressure.
This is a core of super-sticky, sweet rice, wrapped in a layer of coarse-texture, bean paste.
This is a core of super-sticky, sweet rice, wrapped in a layer of coarse-texture, bean paste.
This is a sheet of rice dough, folded around a filing of pink, sweet bean paste.
This is a sheet of rice dough, folded around a filing of pink, sweet bean paste.

Tell us about your favorite kinds of wagashi and by all means, let us know where you find the best ones!

What's Your Favorite Wagashi?

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    • peterb6001 profile image

      Peter Badham 3 years ago from England

      Very pretty, like most Japanese cooking a lot off beauty put into them. I love them, in fact I fancy a couple now.

    • profile image

      Vicki_P 3 years ago

      I don't believe I've had any before. Great lens! Love reading about Japanese stuff.

    • EditPhotos profile image

      Edit Photos 3 years ago from Earth

      Interesting stuff! Maybe some day I will get a chance to try one.

    • schwarz profile image
      Author

      Rae Schwarz 3 years ago from Seattle, WA

      @captainj88: If you are into subtlety, wagashi may be your thing...

    • captainj88 profile image

      Leah J. Hileman 3 years ago from East Berlin, PA, USA

      I like these textures. I've never tried this before but they sound and look amazing.

    • schwarz profile image
      Author

      Rae Schwarz 3 years ago from Seattle, WA

      @Merrci: Thanks! Sometimes they are so beautiful, it seems strange to eat them. But almost always they are very delicious.

    • Merrci profile image

      Merry Citarella 3 years ago from Oregon's Southern Coast

      They are so pretty! Congrats on the Purple star!

    • schwarz profile image
      Author

      Rae Schwarz 3 years ago from Seattle, WA

      @LornsA178: There are so many dozens of types to try, you never know what you might like.

    • LornsA178 profile image

      LornsA178 3 years ago

      These are so colorful treats, your picture looks so good! Never tried one, I am eager to taste these soon!