Wagashi is characterized by variety and artistry, so you will always be surprised by new creations. Some wagashi are only available in certain parts of Japan, making them great unique omiage or travel presents. As diverse as they look, all wagashi -- with very few exceptions --are entirely made from plant-based ingredients. Without animal fat or cholesterol, wagashi is much healthier than yogashi or Western style sweets. Typical ingredients include mochi (pounded glutinous rice), flour, an (sweetened azuki bean paste), agar agar (a natural gelling agent from seaweed), sweet potatoes and chestnuts. It was extremely difficult for me to choose which wagashi to feature in this article but here goes:
1. Strawberry Daifuku
Daifuku, an incredibly smooth mochi with a sweet bean paste filling, is one of the most common and popular wagashi, available even in supermarkets and convenience stores. But if there is one daifuku you ought to try, it has to be ichigo daifuku, daifuku with a luscious fresh whole strawberry at its heart. Plain daifuku has been around for over 200 years but ichigo daifuku is a relatively new creation In 1985, Wahei Osumi of the wagashi shop Osumi-tamaya thought of putting a fresh strawberry inside a daifuku. This was, at first, met with skepticism, but soon, the shop could hardly keep up with the demand and many other shops started imitating them. Yes, you could probably get ichigo daifuku from the supermarket but nothing beats the original. Osumi-tamaya's ichigo daifuku manages to successfully balance the zestiness of the strawberry with the understated flavors of the sweet bean and mochi. Inferior ichigo daifuku have a strong tangy strawberry taste overpowering the mochi and sweet bean. Osumi-tamaya is located in Shinjuku (main branch; see address below), Yotsuya, and Ginza, but their products are also available in department stores.
Wagashi-dokoro Osumi-tamaya Honten – 和菓子処 大角玉屋 本店
Address: 8-25, Sumiyoshi-cho, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo, Japan
Phone: +81 3-3351-7735
Open Hours: 9AM-7:30PM
2. Rabbit Cake
These incredibly cute rabbit shaped sweets called usagiman are made fresh in Toraya's shop only after an order is placed. They are believed to bring good luck. The sweets shop that makes these have been in the business since the 16th century. You read that right. The current president of Toraya (literally, 'Tiger Store') belongs to the 17th generation of the family. Enchu Kurokawa, the founding father of present day Toraya established a successful confectionary business in Kyoto and became a supplier of sweets to the imperial court of Emporer Goyozei. Toraya secured a position in Tokyo in 1869 when the national capital was transferred there. Now there are about 80 shops in Japan plus a boutique in Paris (the New York boutique unfortunately closed after 9/11). There cannot be another confectionary shop with a more illustrious past.
While usagiman may be one of their cutest sweets, Toraya is best known for their yōkan, blocks of thick jellied dessert made from sweet red bean paste and agar. Their Toraya Café in Roppongi Hills building offers the delectable combination of red beans and chocolate in their "Azuki and Cacao Fondant," definitely a must-try.
Toraya has several locations in Tokyo and Japan. Refer to this link for more store information.
Warabimochi, contrary to the regular use of the word mochi, is not made from glutenous rice flour. Its scrumptiously chewy jelliness is made from bracken starch. Usually served chilled and especially popular in the summer, the sweet nutty soybean or kinako powder and a drizzle of brown sugar syrup or kuromitsu make warabimochi finger licking good. Sometimes, the kinako powder is varied with sesame or green tea powder.
If there is one shop that has perfected warabimochi, it is Kyoto's Gion Tokuya. Their "Hon Warabimochi" uses fine-grain starch and wasanbon, an expensive, high quality sugar with a unique aroma and flavor. An order of 8 pieces costs more than ¥1000 but this does not deter the people who come and line up along one of the businest alleys in the Gion district. Lines are long on a daily basis, not just with foreigners but also local Japanese, owing to the supreme quality of the warabimochi.
Osamu Shigematsu, chair of United Arrows tried Gion Tokuya's signature warabimochi and was so impressed he invited them to open a branch on the ground floor of their headquarters in Harajuku.
Tokyo branch: B1F/1F, 2-31-12 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku
4. Unbaked sweets
One of the most popular souvenirs in Kyoto is Yatsuhashi (八橋) made from rice flour, cinnamon and sugar and baked into bridge-like shapes and sometimes dipped and covered with chocolate, strawberry or green tea glaze. They're delicious little hard cookies, similar to senbei or rice crackers (more hard than crispy), and they sometimes come in beautiful collectible tins perfect for gifting.
If you are anything like my husband who likes to get a spoonful of raw cookie dough whenever I make a batch, you might like the raw, unbaked version of yatsuhashi called nama yatsuhashi or sometimes also called otabe (which is more accurately, the name of the store, but it has become so famous the name stuck) -- I personally think the raw version is more superior. The most common shape of nama yatsuhashi is a triangle, with a lump of red bean paste in the middle. Otabe's chocolate nama yatsuhashi won a special gold prize in the Monde Selection in 2010. The company Otabe credits the 3 ingredients that make their nama yatsuhashi unrivaled: Fukui-brand rice called Koshihikari, azuki beans from Hokkaido, and uriwari-no-mizu orspring water from the Uriwari waterfall delivered daily to the Kyoto shop from Wakasa. If you like this sweet a lot and would like to learn how to make it, check out these lessons.
To locate Otabe shops, refer to this link.
5. Monthly edible poems
Sou-sou Zaifu is a shop in Kyoto specializing in original Japanese textile. Now imagine wagashi inspired by textile design. Sou-sou Zaifu has collaborated with well-known sweet shop Kameya Yoshinaga to come up with original limited edition (and we really mean limited as they are never repeated even in the following years (see here for all the gorgeous photos of their sweets each month since 2009) unbaked cakes. Sweets are artfully coordinated with a specially designed postcard based on an actual textile design. I'd like to share 3 of my favorite sweets and the poignant stories behind them. Consider the above called Kiku-dayori "News of Chrysanthemum" which was the featured sweet in October of 2013 with textile designed by Katsuji Wakisaka. Chrystanthemum, a flower in the Imperial crest and symbol of the Japanese culture, heralds the arrival of autumn. Purple color is derived from pureed purple yam and the thin black sheet base is made of brown sugar yokan and bamboo charcoal.
The above sweet was featured in August of 2013. Entitled Chikurin or "Bamboo Thicket." This wagashi is served in a hollowed out, Kyoto style bamboo branch. Inside, there are two different layers. The visible upper layer is made of white sweet beans and mango pureed into a yokan with generous bits of mango fruit, and the bottom layer is made of kanten jelly, coconut milk and sweetened green beans. The complimentary tropical flavors can be enjoyed simultaneously in one dessert. This wagashi is inspired by the legend of Princess Kaguya who magically incarnated from a bamboo stalk and was found and cared for by an elderly couple. She grew up to be so beautiful she had many suitors, none of whom were a good match for her wild spirit. On the night of August 15th, she was escorted back to her true home in the moon by heavenly messengers.
Chestnut yokan blended with sugar and burned with a confectioner's torch results in sweet that resembles an old, rusted gate lock. Gomon or "The Gate" was the sweet featured last November 2013. It looks old, but like the ancient castles and samurai houses, they are heavy and strong, clear symbols of authority and power. They are meant to protect, but also to intimidate enemies. Together with the textile design, the sweet appears to be a solid castle gate closed with a ponderous lock. The iron portion is cleverly made with sweet bean paste, black sesame and charcoal bamboo powder.
Each sweet set (with green tea) costs ¥860.
Address: B1F, 565-72 Nakano-cho, Nakagyo-ward, Kyoto