There are many varieties of Japanese sweets that you can find today, most especially when it comes to cooking videos on social media. Well, the Japanese have been making desserts long before the sugar that we know of today became widely available in the country. These traditional Japanese desserts are known as wagashi and are usually enjoyed with a cup of green tea or matcha and served during tea ceremonies.
Wagashi would typically use plant-based ingredients like azuki beans, rice cakes, rice flour, agar, sesame paste, and chestnuts. Vegans and vegetarians would be able to enjoy most wagashi without worry.
Some types of wagashi can only be enjoyed seasonally or regionally, so it’s good to keep an eye out when you’re visiting Japan! There are confections available all-year, of course, and can be easily found in local cafes, restaurants, temples, gardens, and pastry shops. If you’re visiting Tokyo, make sure to drop by Asakusa and Ginza District for a wide selection of sweets you can sample. You can even visit us at our branch in Shinjuku, Tokyo for a lesson in Japanese sweets making and a Tea ceremony session!
There are many kinds of wagashi that you’ll be able to find all over Japan, but we’ve listed some of the most common kinds you’re likely to come across on your journey–all of which are sure to be delicious and will make you ask for seconds.
Mochi is one of the most common types of snack that most people are familiar with. This Japanese rice cake is made of short-grain glutinous rice that’s steamed, pounded into paste and molded into a shape. Sometimes it uses additional ingredients like water, sugar and cornstarch. If you’ll notice, mochi is a component of many other desserts like the daifuku. You’ll even find that mochi is sometimes wrapped around ice cream, creating the beloved mochi ice cream, with its thick and sweet center with a chewy exterior.
There are several places you can find delicious mochi in Japan, most of which are in Tokyo, one of which is Takemura. Takemura is one of the older shops in the city that have been serving mochi since 1930 and serves some of the most delicious mochis you can find. You’ll also come across Ginza Akebono in the Marunouchi district in Tokyo that serves these rice cakes and many other traditional Japanese sweets.
If you find yourself in Kyoto, make sure to drop by Demachi Futaba in Kamigyo and try their famous Myodai Mame Mochi. The queue for the dessert shop is quite long but don’t be discouraged as it is fast-moving and definitely worth the wait.
In Nara, you’ll find the famous Nakanidou, that’s known for their traditional method of pounding the mochi dough in front of spectating customers.
Daifuku or daifukumochi are small round mochi that is stuffed with a sweet filling, usually red bean paste. The name “daifuku” literally translates to “great luck”, and “daifukumochi” is “great luck rice cake”. But it wasn’t always like that, daifuku was originally called “Habutai mochi” or “belly thick rice cake” because it would be stuffed thickly with its filling. Daifuku are sometimes eaten after getting toasted as well and are gifted for special or ceremonial occasions.
There are many variations of daifuku available depending on their filling and ingredients, and where you can find them. One of these variations is the Yomogi daifuku, which is made from kusa mochi–a kind of rice cake that uses mugwort for flavor. There is also the Ichigo daifuku, a kind of daifuku that uses a whole strawberry wrapped in red bean paste and then mochi. The Ichigo daifuku is highly sought after and is usually freshly-prepared.
If you ever find yourself in Tokyo, head over to Ginza Akebono in the Ginza district for their ichigo daifuku and many other treats.
Dango is a Japanese dumpling that uses rice flour, glutinous rice flour, and uruchi rice flour. It’s a lot like mochi but the difference is in their method of creation. While mochi uses steamed rice flour and pounded smooth, dango is made by adding water to rice flour and mixing or kneading until it becomes smooth and is shaped into balls to steam or boil. They are typically served on a skewer, while some coated varieties are served on a plate.
Dango is common as street food in Japan and is popular during festivals. There are different varieties that are usually dictated by what sauce it’s served with or additional flavorings that are added to the rice flour. You might be familiar with the pink, green and white dango, also known as Sanshoku or Hanami dango, which is featured in a number of anime series, specifically in Clannad in its ending theme. Hanami dango uses mild flavorings that affect its colors as well–red shiso for pink, mugwort or green tea for green, while white remains plain.
Some of the best dango you’ll find are located in Mount Takao in Tokyo’s Hachioji Town. It’s even received the highest rating possible from the Michelin Green Guide Japan, 3 stars. Here, you can explore the different flavors offered by all the different establishments, like Mitsuhuku Dango, found in the corner of Takaosan Sumika.
Dorayaki is a type of confection made with red bean paste sandwiched between two small castella pancakes. The original dorayaki was made with just one layer until 1914 when Usagiya in Ueno, Tokyo, reinvented the dessert to create the current shape. The name “dora” means “gong”, and came from its rounded shape. According to legends, the first dorayaki was made when a samurai left his dora at a farmer’s home. The dora or gong was then used by the farmer to fry pancakes and subsequently named it dorayaki.
If you’re a fan of Japanese manga and anime, you’ll probably remember Doraemon and his love for dorayaki. There’s even a special variety of this treat called Doraemon Dorayaki which is available every year during March and September in Japan. It gained enough popularity that Doraemon Dorayaki became available in the North American market starting 2015.
You can find some of the best dorayaki right in Tokyo–perfect if you’re there to explore the city and are a fan of anime and Harajuku. Besides Usagiya, there’s also Kameju, Tokiya, and Seijuken in Tokyo, which are some of the most highly recommended places to try this treat.
Taiyaki is commonly sold as street food in Japan. It’s known by its distinct fish shape, but it doesn’t taste like it at all. The taiyaki is basically just a filling that’s wrapped in flour skin, making it a reshaping of the popular imagawayaki. Taiyaki fillings will range from sweetened red bean paste, custard, chocolate, cheese, or sweet potato. It’s also a favorite treat in South Korea but is alternatively called the “bungeo-ppang” or carp bread.
Its name is derived from “tai” or the red seabream, which is a symbol of luck and fortune in Japan since they were expensive kinds of fish that can only be afforded by the rich and are served on special occasions.
Taiyaki have taken on many roles over the years, from mini versions and even being turned into ice cream cones–there is also ice cream filled taiyaki sold in Asian grocery stores and supermarkets. You’ll even find a train-shaped taiyaki being sold outside the Narimasu Station in Itabashi, Tokyo. You can try the famous taiyaki shop, Tairaki Wakaba, near Yotsuya Station in Shinjuku, Tokyo that serves the classic taiyaki.
Manju is similar to daifuku in that it’s a bun wrapped around sweet red bean paste. The difference, however, is that manju doesn’t use rice flour as a main ingredient. It was originally a Chinese confection called “mantou” until it reached Japan where it has been enjoyed for nearly 700 years. This sweet bun has even traveled across other countries, is known as the Turkish “manti”, and the Korean “mandu”.
There are many adaptations to the traditional red bean manju, one of which is the matcha manju made with green tea and the mizu manju with its jelly-like and translucent appearance. Different regions have their own unique take on the treat as well–Saitama has the jumangoku manju, while Hiroshima and Miyajima have the momiji manju that takes on the shape of the maple leaf, which you’ll be able to find on the road heading towards Itsukushima Shrine.
Manju is a common street food that can be bought anywhere in Japan, from street vendors to confectionary shops where they are packaged like little gifts to take home. However, if you really want to go after the most delicious kind, you can drop by Yuzawaya Saryo in Tochigi.
Anmitsu is a Meiji Era dessert made with agar jelly cubes, mochi and sweet red bean paste, and fruits. It is commonly served with “mitsu” or a sweet black syrup poured over the jelly. There are many takes on the dessert bowl, some with ice cream or dango toppings. This old-fashioned dessert is normally enjoyed in the summers and warmer days of spring as a refreshing treat to stay cool.
There are many cafes and sweet shops in Tokyo that serve anmitsu such as Anmitsu Mihashi in Taito City, and Kanmidokoro Hatsune in Chuo City, and many others in the historical Ueno District.
Oshiruko or Zenzai
Oshiruko and Zenzai are two different kinds of desserts but are very similar in that they use azuki beans with sugar and salt. The beans are boiled and this is where the differences come into play. Zenzai is just the beans and water as they are while Oshiruko crushes the beans into a paste and is made into a looser soup in comparison. Oshiruko is more common in the eastern parts of Japan while in the west, Zenzai is used to refer to both the whole and crushed versions of the soup.
And yes, Zenzai and Oshiruko are soups. These are warmer desserts that use chewy toasted mochi or dango as toppings and are enjoyed in the wintertime. Other variations call for it to be served over shaved ice or with something sour or salty to balance the flavors. Sweetened condensed milk is also used as a topping.
You can find Oshiruko and Zenzai almost anywhere in Japan during the cold months, but if you really want to go hunting for the best, you can try out Gion Tokuya in Harajuku, Tokyo, or any branch of Toraya all over Tokyo in Tokyo Station, Roppongi, and Ginza among many others, as well as their branch in Kyoto.
Yokan is a thick, jelly dessert made with red bean paste, agar jelly, and sugar. It’s typically sold in blocks around Japan and is served in slices. Yokan is sometimes also made with white kidney bean paste, which makes a milder flavor and a slightly translucent appearance. This base is used to make the green tea yokan variety.
Yokan can be enjoyed plain, or with different fillings like whole sweet red beans, chopped nuts, and sweet potato.
Yokan hails from Chinese origins and was made with gelatin from boiled sheep. However, Zen Buddhists created a cruelty-free version that uses wheat flour and azuki beans instead, before it was eventually replaced with agar jelly.
If you’re looking to find some of the most delicious yokan in Japan, you can head on over to any Toraya branch. This high-end yokan shop started serving confectionery to the Imperial family in Kyoto, and eventually expanded to another shop in Tokyo. You can find their stores in Tokyo Station, Roppongi, and Ginza among many others.
You can also try Funawa in Asakusa, Tokyo near Kaminarimon, and their Western-style yokan, and Kawagoe in Saitama for their sweet potato imo yokan.
Monaka, not to be confused by the alien from planet Wagashi in the DragonBall series, is a wafer sandwich with a sweet red bean paste filling. Monaka is similar to taiyaki, however it uses mochi as a base for its wafers whereas taiyaki does not. This dessert is commonly square shaped but it can vary depending on the region or seasons. Some kinds are shaped like flowers like cherry blossoms or chrysanthemums.
The azuki or red bean fillings are also ever-changing, some containing sesame seeds, or mochi. A more modern take, some monaka even have an ice cream filling. Monaka is also served with tea and during tea ceremonies.
If you’re visiting Tokyo, you can find monaka being served in most cafes, commonly Asakusa and Ginza. One of which is Asakusa Chochin Monaka that specializes in Japanese ice cream sandwiches. Another is the confectionery shop, Ginza Akebono, where you can find various other sweets as well.
Arare, named after soft hail or snow pellets, are bite-size Japanese rice crackers made with mochi, and is sometimes referred to as kakimochi or mochi crunch in Hawaii. Surprisingly, this snack can be sweet or savory, unlike the other items on this list. These rice crackers are sometimes wrapped in nori seaweed and called norimaki arare and are seasoned with soy sauce.
Arare is typically available during Japan’s Girls’ Day or Doll Festival, “Hinamatsuri”, where they take on more colors like pink, yellow, or green.
Aside from festivals, you can actually buy commercialized arare online and in any convenience store in Japan.
Yatsuhashi is one of the most popular souvenirs you can get from Kyoto–and it’s edible too! Yatsuhashi is a traditional treat made of mochi and sugar with the distinctive taste of cinnamon. There are three main kinds of yatsuhashi depending on how it’s prepared. It can be baked, steamed, or filled. Common fillings for this wagashi is matcha powder, brown sugar, plum, or sweet potato. Some are also filled with cherry blossoms or chocolate.
Although the triangle cut is more popular, the original yatsuhashi is rectangular and bent like an arch. If you’re planning to visit Kyoto, be sure to drop by Shogoin or Izutsu for their yatsuhashi. Shogoin sells more traditional versions of the snack. While Izutsu in Gion has their unique variant called “yugiri”, that was based on kabuki play characters, Yugiri Tayu and Isaya Fujiya.
If you’re looking for a more modern take on the filling, you can drop by Honke Nishio Yatsuhashi for their strawberry, chocolate, and banana fillings, along with many others.
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You can even have them with matcha during a Tea ceremony.
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