The Art of Japanese Sweets: Exploring Traditional Wagashi and Beyond

Taiyaki

Introduction: The Sweet Art of Japanese Confectionery

In Japan, sweets like cakes, cookies, and desserts take centre stage in the world of confectionery. To many sweets makers, it’s more than just a nibble; it's a story told and an art form celebrated across the country, exemplified through its selection of high-quality ingredients, the artistry behind its creation, the cultural nuances, and, above all, the joy of savouring it. 

From the traditional wagashi to modern adaptations, Japanese sweets are a delightful exploration of taste and tradition. Let's embark on a journey to discover the art of Japanese sweets—such as cakes, cookies, and the like—and the cities where they're revered.


Tokyo: The Capital of Contrast

A Japanese commuter in Tokyo Station choosing a package of Tokyo Banana from brightly colored shops.
Photo by Aaron Webb (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Tokyo (東京), a city that beautifully marries tradition with modernity, is a melting pot of confectionery creativity. One of the city's signature sweets is the famous “Tokyo Banana” (東京ばな奈). Despite the name, it's not a fruit but a delicious sponge cake filled with banana custard. Representing the city’s vibrant charm through its variety of flavours (including the original “miitsuketa” flavour) and delightful designs, the Tokyo Banana went on to become one of Tokyo’s most popular souvenirs both amongst domestic shoppers and international tourists.

 

Monaka from Kuuya in Ginza
Photo by 毒島みるく

Another noteworthy mention is monaka (最中). It's a traditional cookie featuring azuki red bean jam sandwiched between two thin, crispy wafers. In particular, Kuuya (空也) in Tokyo’s Ginza District has been making fragrant monaka for decades that have been well-loved by several of Japan’s literary giants like Soseki Natsume and kabuki actors such as Ichikawa Danjuro the Ninth. Monaka is a testament to Tokyo's skill in crafting sweets that balance sweetness, texture, and subtlety.

 

Kyoto: A City Steeped in Tradition

Yastuhashi Japanese wagashi shop in Kyoto
Photo by Wally Gobetz (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

As we move west, we reach Kyoto (京都), the cultural capital of Japan. Due to its strong tea ceremony culture, Kyoto is known for its intricate, aesthetically pleasing sweets, often served with tea. One such delight is yatsuhashi (八ツ橋), a thin, soft confection made from glutinous rice flour, filled with sweet azuki bean paste. It's shaped like a bamboo leaf and comes in flavours like cinnamon and matcha green tea. Historically, Yatsuhashi has always been a popular souvenir for travellers visiting Kyoto's temples such as Kiyomizu-dera (清水寺), linking it closely with the city's rich cultural heritage.

 


Nagasaki: The Sweet Influence of the West

Castella and tea

Nagasaki (長崎)'s complex history, as one of Japan's earliest ports open to foreign trade, is reflected in its unique confectionery. The city is most famous for the castella (カステラ), a sponge cake that has its roots derived from sweets introduced by Portuguese traders in the 16th century. This cake has evolved into a specialty of Nagasaki, with a sweet, moist texture that pairs perfectly with green tea. Another must-try is “Kasutera Manju” (カステラ饅頭), a fusion of castella and traditional manju, showcasing the city's unique culinary blending.

 

Confectionery Calendar: Celebrating Japan's Seasons

One of the fascinating aspects of Japanese confectionery is the celebration of the seasons. The notion of shun (旬), or seasonality, is deeply rooted in Japanese cuisine. And sweets are no exception. With every change in season, the flavours, colours, and designs of sweets transform, reflecting nature's cycle. Let's explore how each season brings its unique touch to the world of Japanese sweets.

 

Spring: The Season of Sakura

Sakura Mochi

In Japan, spring is synonymous with cherry blossoms. As the sakura flowers bloom, you'll find Sakura Mochi (桜餅) gracing the shelves. This is a sweet, pink-coloured rice cake wrapped in a pickled cherry leaf, capturing the fleeting beauty of sakura in a delightful bite.

 

Summer: The Season of Refreshing Flavours

Noodle-like sweet made with konjac
Photo by Arnold Fang (CC BY-NC 2.0)

As the mercury rises in Japan, sweets shops introduce lighter, refreshing flavours to their array of snacks and desserts. One summer favourite is kuzukiri (くずきり), a noodle-cut dessert made from kuzu starch and often served chilled. These transparent, noodle-like sweets are dipped in a dark sugar syrup, offering a delightful respite from the summer heat.

 

Autumn: The Season of Harvest

Kuri manju
Photo by 毒島みるく

Autumn in Japan brings a riot of colours and a bounty of harvest. Kuri Manju (栗饅頭) is a beloved autumn cookie, with a sweet chestnut filling encased in a soft, fluffy dough. As the leaves change colour, this chestnut delight symbolises the autumn season's abundance and change.


Winter: Warm and Hearty Flavors

japanese sweets
Photo by Masaru Miura 

The chilly winter calls for warm, hearty flavours. Yuzu Mochi (柚餅), made with yuzu citrus and filled with a sweet bean paste, is a winter favorite. The refreshing yuzu flavor balances the sweet filling, bringing warmth and cheer during the cold months. During the End-of-Year and New Year Holidays as well, jo-namagashi (上生菓子) are soft, elegantly-designed sweets made with high-quality seasonal ingredients that are traditionally eaten on New Year’s Day for good luck.


Snack Subscription: A Taste of Japan at Your Doorstep

If you can't make it to Japan, don't worry. Our monthly Omiyage Snack Box at JAPAN RAIL CLUB is a Japanese snack box subscription that delivers a curated selection of authentic Japanese sweets, cookies, and snacks right to your doorstep. Every box brings a new surprise, allowing you to taste the changing seasons and regional specialties of Japan. It's a delightful way to immerse yourself in the art of Japanese sweets from the comfort of your home.

Meet the author

Sue Lynn

Currently based in Tokyo, Sue Lynn first came to Japan as a university exchange student. With 6 years of experience in Japan's inbound tourism, she is familiar with Japan, particularly on rail passes and East Japan spots, and has a passion for travelling.

Sue is also passionate about Japan's thrifting culture, and is keen to uncover more hidden gems while visiting all 47 prefectures during her stay in Japan.

Sue's 5Cs are cats, cameras, cinema, climbing, and city pop. Ask her about how her favourite JR Pass (JR TOKYO Wide Pass) saved her life (and wallet).

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September Maker's Story: Rabbit motif snacks fr...

Hailing from Yokohama, Kanagawa Prefecture, Hamausagi has been making rabbit-themed snacks and confections for over...

japan festival food yakisoba
Sue Lynn

What your favourite Japanese summer festival fo...

During the hot months of July and August, summer festivals (夏祭り natsu matsuri) are held all around Japan where celebrations take shape in the form of mesmerising dances (Awa Odori,...

Sue Lynn Festival

What your favourite Japanese summer festival fo...

During the hot months of July and August, summer festivals (夏祭り natsu matsuri) are held...

5 Exciting Fireworks Festivals in East Japan to Catch This Summer
Sue Lynn

5 Exciting Fireworks Festivals in East Japan to...

Summer in Japan is incomplete without a spectacle of fireworks! East Japan, where major cities like Tokyo, Sendai, Nagano, and Yokohama are located, is home to many exciting displays of...

Sue Lynn Summer

5 Exciting Fireworks Festivals in East Japan to...

Summer in Japan is incomplete without a spectacle of fireworks! East Japan, where major cities...