Wagashi: All You Need to Know About Traditional Japanese Sweets

Wagashi (和菓子) are traditional Japanese sweets that are often accompanied by a cup of green tea. From sushi to ramen, and everything in between, Japan offers one of the most delicate and varied cuisines in the world. It is safe to say that Japanese cuisine is in itself one of the reasons why each year millions of tourists decide to visit the country.

Yet Japan also has a rich variety of traditional confectionaries which are arguably less known. Visitors to Japan are likely to be amazed by the great variety of Japanese sweets.

We’ll talk about everything you need about wagashi, the most popular stores in Tokyo, and some of the available workshops where you can learn how to prepare these sweet desserts.

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What’s Wagashi?

According to the Tokyo Wagashi Association, there is no standard definition of how a wagashi should be prepared. Due to this reason, there are many kinds of desserts that are commonly known as wagashiusually made using plant-based traditional Japanese ingredients such as sweet azuki bean paste, rice cake, rice flour, sesame paste, and chestnuts.

The association, which was established by a slew of wagashi shops in Tokyo to popularize and disseminate information about wagashi, recognizes at least six different categories of confectionaries:

1. Mochimono

It’s a confection made with rice mochi. Among these categories, we find sweets such as kashiwamochi, daifuku, ohagi, and others.

2. Mushimono

Japanese confections made by steaming. It includes delicacies such as mushimanju and kurimushiyokan, among others. 

3. Yakimono

Japanese sweets, or wagashi, are made by baking on a copper plate or in an oven. Among them, we find varieties such as hiranabe, dorayaki, sakuramochi, obunmono, and others.

4. Nagashimono

Confections made by pouring ingredients into a mold. The popular yokan wagashi is among them.

5. Nerimono

Confections made by shaping bean paste. Some of these wagashi are the nerikiri (made of sweetened white bean paste and glutinous rice flower) and konashi, among others. 

6. Okamono

Confection made by combining separate ingredients. An example is the monaka, a Japanese sweet made of azuki bean paste sandwiched between two thin crisp wafers of mochi.

And finally, the uchimono, a confection that is placed in a mold and hardened through beating. Rakugan sweets are among them.

If you have never heard about most of these names, don’t worry, you are not alone. Even some Japanese people are not that familiar with all the types and different names for each, as there are over 60 sorts of wagashi, and each region of Japan boasts its own specialty.

history of wagashi

Brief History of Wagashi

One of the important things to know is that the roots of wagashi can be found over two-thousand years ago, when nuts were reduced to a powdery state and then mixed with rice flour to shape balls. The result of this process was a sweet dessert known as “dango.”

This type of confectionary evolved with time and with the influence of other cuisines, particularly from the West and from China. According to Tokyo Wagashi Association, it was during the Edo period (between 1603 and 1867) when the quality of wagashi rose considerably. This was a period in history when Japan was living in a time of economic growth and enjoyment of arts and culture. Some wagashi that was first prepared in this period is still pretty similar to some of the delicacies that we enjoy today.

With the arrival of the Meiji period (from 1868 to 1912), Japan increased its exchange with the world, and the first modern ovens made their way into the country. This helped to shape new varieties of wagashi, some of them baked. Consequently, other types of wagashi were also created, but they always respected a particularity: seasonal characteristics.

Different varieties of Wagashi appear in stores all across the country depending on the season, and they are available only for a certain time. For instance, Japanese like to eat hanabiramochi, a mochi variety that consists of a thinly rolled, round rice cake that is folded around bean paste in January, while kuzuzakura (cake of bean paste covered with kuzuko) and mizuyokan (wagashi made of red bean paste, agar and sugar) can be mainly found in July. 

The importance of seasons in Wagashi making is also reflected in the confectionaries’ decorations. Tokyo Wagashi Association states on its website that “a sense of the passing seasons can be appreciated by the seasonal changes in the Wagashi offered in shops.” For instance, Wagashi such as Nerikiri and Konashi are decorated with the shapes of pine trees and bamboo in January, but they take the shape of cherry blossoms in March.

Etiquette to Eating Wagashi

Wagashi are usually eaten along with green tea. There is also certain eating etiquette when it comes to eating wagashi, depending on the type of ceremony. In formal environments, wagashi will be served on small individual plates or in one big flat bowl holding confectionaries for multiple guests. 

Japanese use traditional tools such as Kuromoji and Youji to enjoy wagashi. These tools are thin and flat utensils shaped like miniature knives, used to slice and pick the Wagashi. The only difference is that Youjis are made of stainless steel, while Kuromojis are made of wood.

Last but not least, even if it can be tempting to quickly devour the wagashi in front of you, it is important to wait for the tea server to say the words “Wagashi o Douzo,” (Please enjoy the sweets) before starting to enjoy the sweets. 

where to buy wagashi in tokyo

Where to Buy Wagashi in Tokyo

Wagashi can be found across several cafes, dedicated shops, and department stores in Tokyo, as well as online on platforms such as Amazon or Rakuten Shop. However, if you (as I do) prefer to explore the streets of Tokyo to find the best wagashi in town, here are a few recommended shops:

Gunrindo

One of the best stores in the capital to find daifuku (round mochi stuffed with a sweet filling, most commonly anko), which has been open since 1900. It is advised to come with time and as earlier as possible, as there are usually queues of people lining up in front of the store.  

Location: 2-1-2 Otowa, Bunkyo City, Tokyo, 112-0013, Japan
Business hours: Tuesday to Saturday, 09:30 AM – 05:00 PM

Yoshinobu Tsuruya Toranomon Hills

With some wagashi starting at just about 150 yen per piece, this store, which represents a brand dating over 200 years, presents you with many tasty options.

Location: Toranomon Hills Business Tower 1F, 1-17-1 Toranomon, Minato-ku. 
Business hours: Monday to Friday, 10:30 am to 7:30 pm. Sat and Sunday from 11:00 am to 7:00 pm.

Akasaka Aono

This is another store that has been preparing confectionaries for over a century. Be sure to try the shop’s Akasaka mochi, made with walnuts and brown sugar. Customers can also enjoy fresh wagashi in the dining area of the store.

Location: 7-11-9, Akasaka, Minato City, Tokyo. 
Business hours: Monday to Saturday, 9:00 am to 6:00 pm.

Toraya Tokyo: Founded in Kyoto in early 1600, Toraya currently has three factories and about 80 stories in Japan, in addition to a boutique in Paris, France. Its Marounouchi store, next to Tokyo Station, is particularly acclaimed in the popular tourist information platform TripAdvisor, with 4,5 stars.

Location: 1-9-1 2F Tokyo Station Hotel, Marunouchi, Chiyoda.

Business Hours: Open all year from 10:00 am to 20:00 pm

Usagiya

This unpretentious store, established in 1913, is popular for dorayaki, a  sweet pancake filled with anko. The shop also offers other varieties of wagashi for all tastes.

Location: 1 Chome-10-10 Ueno, Taito City, Tokyo 110-0005 
Business Hours: Monday to Sunday, from 9:00 am to 6:00 pm

Ebisu Mamezono

This tiny shop in the Ebisu, just one subway station away from Shibuya, offers you a good selection of kintsuba wagashi, including black soybean kintsuba, matcha kintsuba, and white kintsuba. You can also find varieties of chestnuts dorayaki and milk-steamed buns.

Location: Ebisu, 4 Chome−9−7, Shibuya City, Tokyo
Business Hours: Monday to Saturday, from 10.00 am to 7.00 pm

Best Wagashi Workshops

If you like to go deeper into the art and the history of wagashi, then taking a workshop class can be the ultimate experience for you to learn the different techniques for creating stunningly artistic confections. Most classes in Tokyo last for about two to four hours, while prices go from 6,000 yen to 10,000 yen per session.

The most common wagashi prepared during workshops is the nerikiri. This snack is perfect for taking home as a souvenir (they can last for up to seven days when packed correctly) or they can also be enjoyed with matcha tea.

Here are some of the most popular Wagashi workshops in Tokyo: 

Nerikiri Wagashi Class with Matcha Green Tea

this workshop is hosted by Mai Irie, also known as “Miss Wagashi,” a cooking researcher, instructor, and wagashi artist, near Yoyogi-Uehara station, a few steps away from Shibuya. In this class, you will learn to make wagashi dough from scratch. All ingredients are plant-based, and you will also use traditional wagashi-making tools to prepare the confectionery. To harmonize the entire experience, Mai will offer you traditional Matcha green tea.

Private sessions, from two to four people, cost 10,000 yen per person, and you can book them here. To get more information, you can visit Miss Wagashi’s site here.

Location: Yoyogi-huehara station, Toky
Price: 10,000 yen per session

Simply Oishii Wagashi School

Miyuki Suyari, the founder of Simply Oishii Wagashi School, is a bilingual Japanese lady that has been baking and cooking since her childhood when she lived with her parents in the US. Since 2014, she has been teaching Japanese home cooking to foreign residents and tourists from her place in Tokyo. According to her website, Miyuki’s classes are “casual, simple, oishii (delicious), and beautiful to your eyes.” 

You can get to know more about Miss Miyuki and her recipes by visiting her YouTube channel.

She currently teaches both in-person and online classes. The “Wagashi course” a class where you will learn to prepare four pieces of a seasonal Nerikiri wagashi, accompanied by Matcha green tea, will cost you about 9,200 yen, or 65 USD. Other types of classes, also online, are available. To book a class, you need to make a reservation from here.

Location: Near Fudomae and Meguro Station.
Price: From 9,200 per session, per person.

Kimono Tea Ceremony Maicoya

Located in the central hub of Shinjuku, Kimono Tea Ceremony Maikoya is the place for a perfect tea ceremony option for foreign residents and tourists. Visitors can wear a kimono and learn about the Japanese tea culture. The host speaks great English, and the experience has collected a very respectable rate of five stars on TripAdvisor.

Wagashi classes, which last for about 60 minutes, start at just 5,000 yen per person. Currently, there is a 10% off promotion when booking online, meaning that a class will just cost you 4,500 yen. Workshops are held in tatami rooms, and attendees are asked to wear traditional cooking outfits. 

You can book a session here.

Location: 2-19-15-9F, Kabukicho, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo, Japan.
Price: From 4,500 yen per person, per session. 

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What is wagashi?

Wagashi (和菓子) are traditional Japanese sweets that are often accompanied by a cup of green tea. They’re usually made with sweet azuki bean paste, rice cake, rice flour, sesame paste, and chestnuts.

How long can you store wagashi?

Different Wagashi have different longevity. In general, most wagashi are better consumed as fresh as possible, but some varieties also allow a long-lasting shelf-life. It is better to check the expiration date, as well as the best way to store them, which is usually printed on the box.

How do you eat wagashi?

Wagashi are usually eaten along with green tea. There is also certain eating etiquette when it comes to eating wagashi, depending on the type of ceremony. In formal environments, wagashi will be served on small individual plates or in one big flat bowl holding confectionaries for multiple guests. 

Where can I buy wagashi in Tokyo?

Wagashi can be found across several cafes, dedicated shops, and department stores in Tokyo, as well as online on platforms such as Amazon or Rakuten Shop.


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