Wagashi: The Cultural Significance of Japanese Traditional Sweets

Japan Wagashi

Japan is famous for its food. I am sure you already know sushi (寿司), tempura (天ぷら), and shabushabu (しゃぶしゃぶ). Japanese food may be unique and amazing in taste, but so are Japanese sweets!

Japanese traditional sweets are called wagashi (和菓子) and they are made in many shapes and with diverse ingredients like anko (Japanese red bean paste), rice flour, seasonal fruits, leaves/flowers, and matcha (green tea powder). They are often served and enjoyed with a cup of green tea.

Some can be found across the country all year round, while others are very regional and seasonal. There are wagashi hunters traveling around the country, chasing those colorful seasonal sweets. But how ingrained are wagashi in Japanese culture?

Wagashi and Zen

Wagashi can be traced in the distant past to the Jomon Period, more than 3,000 years ago, when the Japanese rice cake (mochi) was first made. It was enriched along with the Japanese tea ceremony and established in its current style back in the Edo period (1603-1867), over 200 years ago.

The tea ceremony has a lot of similarities with Zen (禅), a school of Mahayana Buddhism which focuses on mindfulness and the idea that simple actions may lead to the awakening of our spirits. It is said that samurai, the famed Japanese warriors of old, enjoyed tea ceremony as a way to practice Zen.

How do you practice mindfulness by drinking tea? During the tea ceremony, no conversation is allowed except for certain phrases required by the ceremony and the occasion. All the steps and actions are narrowed down as simply as possible, and should be done quietly in a particular order. This would fill the tea room with silence and some sort of comfort. All you hear is the sounds of nature; that focuses the mind and helps you let go of your worldly desires.

The main principles of tea ceremony are universal harmony, respect to nature and the creatures that live in it, and tranquility. The ceremony is based on long-held rituals: practitioners use a seasonal tea cup bowl and Kaishi-paper (paper folded and tucked inside the front of kimono and used as as paper plate, napkins, etc.) and wear seasonal kimono and obi (belt). Wagashi, as most of the ritualistic objects used in the ceremony, represents the season, and through them people can appreciate nature and its role in our human nature.

Wagashi and the Seasons

It is a part of Japanese culture to respect the greatness of nature… its beauty and power. Seasons are eternal. Their cycle will start repeatedly, no matter what happens.

Japan has experienced many disasters like earthquakes and typhoons, and looking at the circle of life, the circle of seasons, people might have felt that they can redo everything no matter what happens… Just like nature does. That’s why we appreciate and enjoy each season in food, sweets, clothes, and even in letters.

Among the four seasons, spring is the most beloved because of the cherry blossom (桜, sakura). Sakura has been celebrated for many centuries as Japan’s unofficial national flower (the yellow chrysanthemum and Japanese apricot are considered the official) and holds a very prominent position in Japanese culture. You can find cherry trees in every schoolyard, temple, and park in Japan. You can literally find them everywhere. There are many cherry tree varieties, most of which bloom for only about a week in spring. This short bloom period and their beauty are often metaphors for the fragility of human life. 

wagashi collection

Wagashi Around Japan

It should make sense now that the most popular and consumed wagashi in spring is called sakuramochi (桜もち). It is a sweet, pink-colored rice cake (mochi) with anko filling (red bean paste) and wrapped in a pickled slightly salty sakura (cherry blossom) leaf. Sakuramochi is traditionally consumed to celebrate Girls’ Day on 3 March, wishing for health and growth.

Different regions in Japan have different wagashi styles. Even sakuramochi can be found in two different varieties: Kanto-style (east of Japan) and Kansai-style (west of Japan). Kanto-style uses rice flour to make the rice cake and has a smoother outer skin. Kansai-style uses glutinous rice flour to make a stickier and more chewy skin. (I prefer Kansai-style for sakuramochi.) The Sakura leaf may or may not be eaten depending on individual preference, but it is worth tasting.

sakuramachi

Where to Eat Wagashi

If you want to enjoy seasonal wagashi, I recommend visiting a department store’s food floor. They are usually located on B1 floor in prestigious department stores in city areas, for example the Mitsukoshi department store, the Takashimaya department store, the Isetan department store, and the Matsuzakaya department store. They usually host many traditional, historic, and famous wagashi stores from around the country. No better way to taste some different styles! Going from department store to department store and comparing flavors and styles is simply fun.

Until you can actually travel to Japan, here is a store that lets you enjoy authentic wagashi and feel like you are in Japan while staying in your country:

  • Minamoto Kichoan (源吉兆庵)

You can find stores here: https://www.kitchoan.co.jp/en/shops/oversea/

This store, which originally started in Japan, now has franchises both in and outside of the country, including New York and Los Angeles! It offers many authentic, traditional, and seasonal wagashi in a very Japanese traditional style.

Don’t forget to enjoy the sweets with some fine Japanese green tea!! It is the best way to enjoy wagashi!

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