Japanese Patterns of Design

Wagashi: Traditional Japanese Sweets of Four Seasons

Edible Art on the Plate

Wagashi in varieties of shapes and colors
Wagashi in varieties of shapes and colors (chefsato.jugem.jp)

Wagashi – traditional Japanese style sweets are pure art on the plate. Only skilled confectioners can make such beautiful, elaborate, and fine art. We can call them artisans as they inspire us. Wagashi is deeply related to four seasons in Japan as it brings you the air of each season and memories.

Brief History of Wagashi

Originally, sweets are nuts and fruits in ancient times. The naturally sweet flavor must have enchanted ancient people.

Although they had nuts, it couldn’t be eaten raw, they grated into powder and put them in water and removed foam. Shaped them like balls, it’s supposed to be the beginning of dumplings.

The rice cake was born which is said to be the first Japanese processed food and there’s a record of it as a ready-eat meal in 934.

The rice was pretty precious and treated as such. Only after the Edo era, sugar has been used widely which came in Japan around 750. Before that, rice syrup, malt, and Ama-Dzura (concentrated ivy’s water) syrup had been used.

Then Kentoushi – Japanese missions to Tang China (630- 894) brought back Tang’s confectionery, which is thought to be a huge influence on wagashi.

8 varieties of shape of old chinese sweets
8 varieties of shape of old Chinese sweets (JAPAN WAGASHI ASSOCIATION)

After the tea came from the continent, tea drinking culture gained its popularity. Wagashi and tea culture were developed together, the way of tea immensely blossomed in the 1200s.

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Coming to the Edo era made it come true to enjoy its culture since there was no war. Confectioner produced wide varieties of Kyo-Gashi (wagashi of Kyoto) and Edo-Gashi (wagashi of Edo), most of the sweets we eat today had produced at this time.

Japanese confectionery books for steamed wagashi and dried wagashi in Edo era
Japanese confectionery books for steamed wagashi and dried wagashi in Edo era (JAPAN WAGASHI ASSOCIATION)

After the Meiji era, western culture was pouring in, it was a big thing the oven was introduced. Pretty popular baked sweets such as Kuri-Manju (steamed chestnut bean-jam bun) and Castella (Kasutera, Japanese sponge cake) were born in this period.

Kyoto Sweets Assortment "Kyoto Garden"
Get your Wagashi Assortment from Kyoto on Amazon!: Kyoto Sweets Assortment “Kyoto Garden”

Wagashi with seasons

Many wagashi are related to the particular season. Especially in the way of tea, they serve wagashi which represents the season and appreciate the beauty of it. It shows how much Japanese people love nature, with different affection for each season.

Spring

wagashi ,nerikiri
Nerikiri – made of white beans, sugar, and yam imitating a cherry blossom – Sakura (aishindo.cart.fc2.com)

Taste of spring on your tongue. The cherry blossom shaped cake is truly eye-pleasing and brings you the sense of warmness.

wagashi, nerikiri, yanagi
Nerikiri – made of white beans, sugar, and yam imitating a willow, Yanagi (aishindo.cart.fc2.com)

This sweet expresses swinging Yanagi (willow) in the spring breeze. Inside it, there are strained sweetened red beans.

Wagashi, spring sweets, Uirou
Spring sweets, Uirou – made of rice powder and sugar (KYOTO SARYO)

It looks as if it were a piece of kimono. It’s made of rice powder and steamed. You can see Anko ( strained sweetened red beans) inside.

Summer

Wagashi, mizu-youkan in bamboo
Mizu-youkan in bamboo (kyoto-brand.com)

Another summer sweets, this is made from strained sweetened red beans with agar. Usually, it’s made in a rectangular container, but this version is in bamboo which makes them very unique. Summer sweets contain a lot of water, which not just help drop your body temperature, but also it has a cooling effect for the eyes and mind.

wagashi, nerikiri, ao-kaede
Nerikiri, made of white beans, sugar, and yam imitating green maple leaf, Ao-kaede (aishindo.cart.fc2.com)

Green Japanese maple makes you feel the cool breeze in hot summer.

Wagashi, mizu shingen mochi, rain drop cake
Mizu shingen mochi, rain drop cake (Chopstick Chronicles)

It’s a jelly-like dessert made from mineral water and agar powder. It’s crystal-clear like a rain drop, which has almost no taste. You sprinkle roasted soy powder and pour brown sugar sauce (Kuromitsu” in Japanese), they taste clean and sweet. Soy powder is rich in nutrition and brown sugar contains a lot of minerals, this is a low-calorie, healthy sweets you can have without a guilt. The look goes perfectly with summer.

Fall

wagashi, nerikiri, kaede
Nerikiri, made of white beans, sugar, and yam imitating maple leaf, Kaede (田舎の風景)

In fall, everything in nature changes its colors to the warmer hue. Red and orange sweets keep your heart warm on the contrary to the air getting cooler.

wagashi, japanese persimmon sweets
Wagashi, Japanese Persimmon Sweets (google.com)

It looks like a real Japanese persimmon and actually real Japanese persimmon is kneaded into its dough.

Wagashi, fall leave folded sweets
Wagashi, fall leave folded sweets (latte.la)

Folded leave turned almost red. It reminds you of fall, the scenery filled with vivid red, yellow and orange. Having this with tea would be a nice way to spend one fall afternoon.

Winter

wagashi, winter sweets, shimono-hana
Wagashi, Winter Sweets, Shimono-hana (ayaya55a.exblog.jp)

It expresses frost flowers, which appear only the temperature drops under -20C with no breeze. Steam touches small projections on the frozen surface, crystalizes, and develops frost flowers. A very rare sight to behold.

wagashi, beni-tsubaki
Beni-tsubaki – made of white beans, sugar, and yam imitating red camellia (東京すごろく)

Japanese red camellia in white snow is a typical sight in winter in Japan.

wagashi, winter sweets
Winter Sweets made of white beans, sugar, and yam imitating a leaf with sweet red bean paste in it (www.tamachi-baigetsu.co.jp)

It expresses winter leaves. Inside, you can see Anko (sweetened red beans) sandwiched.

If you happen to be in Kyoto, there are many good cafes to enjoy these wagashi with great tea. Kyoto Saryo – 京都茶寮 is a great place to start. It’s located in Kyoto station, which makes it easy access.

Also, in Tokyo, some cafes serve you good wagashi, but you can go to the basement of department stores, which is called “Depa-Chika” where they carry a lot of wagashi from all around Japan. We can assure you just looking at them makes you feel delightful. Shinjuku would be the best place to start since there are several established department stores.

Varieties of wagashi 2
Varieties of Wagashi (chefsato.jugem.jp)

Definitive Edition Wagashi Textbook : Thorough Explanation of the Procedures and Basic Skills to Make Japanese Sweets [Japan Import]
Get your Wagashi Textbook on Amazon!: Definitive Edition Wagashi Textbook : Thorough Explanation of the Procedures and Basic Skills to Make Japanese Sweets [Japan Import]Although it’s only in Japanese, there are a lot of pictures which give you ideas how each step is taken and just look at them please your eyes.

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Hiroko Matsuyama

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