Traditional Japanese teatime sweets, known as wagashi, are in a league of their own. While western desserts are often equated with excess and indulgence, the dainty wagashi instead calls for quiet appreciation over a calming tea session. As their colour, shape and flavour vary according to the time of year, these sweets are all about capturing the essence of the season in a miniature, edible form.
In its earliest, simplist form as rice cakes, wagashi was used as a ceremonial offering. Today, wagashi remains a key component at many special occasions. The ingenuity of wagashi lies in the fact that it's made from just a few simple ingredients. Glutinous rice flour is turned into sticky, chewy dough known as mochi; boiled beans are mashed with sugar into a paste; and then there's jelly or agar-agar, along with seasonal fruits and flowers. But taste is just one aspect of wagashi; texture, colour and shape are every bit as important. The level of artistry lavished upon wagashi is incomparable, as the ingredients are moulded into little pieces of edible art, almost too pretty to eat.
Wagashi can be broadly classified into three categories: namagashi (fresh confections), han namagashi (half-dry confections) and higashi (dry confections). Within these categories are many variations since these sweets tend to change with the seasons. In spring you'll find many pink-coloured wagashi celebrating the cherry blossom season, whereas late winter is a time for strawberries with wagashi made to resemble snow, ice or plum blossoms. Summer sees many clear gelées that give off a cool feeling while autumn's wagashi reflect the changing colours of the leaves as well as the flavours of persimmon and chestnut.
Note: The availability of the wagashi featured in these photos is dependent on the season.
Art direction by Mayumi Hashimoto, photography by Entaniya Studio
Point to order
When you think of wagashi, these pretty sweets come to mind. Usually made from white beans, sugar and sticky rice flour (shiratamako), this mixture is coloured and moulded into various shapes. Expect pretty pink sweets in the spring around cherry blossom season.
Known for its contrasting textures, monaka sees two rice wafers sandwiching sweet bean paste or other seasonal fillings like fruit or chestnut paste. The wafers are usually shaped according to the season, from cherry blossoms to lucky cats.
If you're a fan of pastries, dorayaki is the wagashi for you. It consists of bean paste sandwiched between two small pancakes, or a single pancake folded in half. The name comes from its round shape, which resembles a dora, a traditional Japanese gong.
Daifuku is generally a mochi ball filled with sweetened red bean paste made from either red or white beans, although this is sometimes replaced by seasonal fruit. A popular winter specialty is the ichigo daifuku — a mochi ball topped with a strawberry.
A traditional jelly, yokan is made by mixing red or white beans with sugar and a type of seaweed gelatin substance known as agar. Yokan is colourful, decorated with unique patterns, and available in blocks (to be cut into slices before serving).
A dry form of wagashi, rakugan are small hard candies made from glutinous rice flour and sugar, which are then shaped witha wooden mould. Highly intricate, these dainty sweets have a cookie-like texture that melts in your mouth. They pair well with a bitter tea.
Think of this as an inverted wagashi, as it's known for having red beans on the outside rather than the inside. Known as botamochi in spring and ohagi in autumn, it can even have a mixture of sticky rice and beans as its exterior.
Another cake-like confection, manju is a form of dough filled with sweet bean paste. These buns can be formed into many different shapes and sizes before being baked or steamed.
Rice dumplings on a skewer, dango is made from sweet rice flour and has a similar chewy texture to mochi, but with a bit more bite. These common street snacks can be made either savoury or sweet.
You can’t visit Japan without trying some dainty sweets. These tiny, intricately-decorated desserts, called wagashi, are actually traditional delicacies with a long history. Learn how to make these artistic treats in a two-and-a-half hour class where you’ll learn how to make nerikiri wagashi, daifuku mochi and dango mochi from making the dough to cutting out tiny flowers and arranging the mochi.