Types of wagashi
When it comes to Japanese sweets, the iconic strawberry shortcake may be the first thing that comes to mind. But luscious fresh cream cakes aren’t the only dessert Japan has to offer. Often paired with tea, wagashi (和菓子) are traditional Japanese sweets that are a feast for one’s stomach and eyes. Here’s a rundown of the common types of wagashi you can find in Japan.
1. Nerikiri (練り切り)
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Nerikiri (練り切り) is the representative traditional Japanese wagashi. The intricate sweets are made from sweetened white bean paste, water, and glutinous rice flour.
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The sky’s the limit when it comes to nerikiri shapes and designs. From plants to vivid landscapes, natural motifs often serve as inspiration for wagashi designs. Expect to find seasonal variations for these highly artistic confectionery pieces.
Nerikiri served with tea and a kuromoji pick
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In traditional tea ceremonies, the delicate wagashi is served with a cup of tea as the sweetness perfectly balances the bitterness of the tea. To properly enjoy a nerikiri, cut it into bite-sized pieces with a kuromoji (黒文字; black willow) pick, then savour the pieces bit by bit.
2. Dango (団子)
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There’s a proverb that goes “花より団子” (hana yori dango), which means “substance over aesthetics”. Appearance-wise, the plain-looking dango (団子) may not be considered the best out of the bunch, but when it comes to taste, it’s a strong contender.
The traditional dumpling is made with rice flour, which gives it its distinct chewy bite. Shaped into balls and skewered onto sticks, the dango is a popular street snack that can be served sweet or savoury.
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One dango staple you can find all year round is mitarashi dango (みたらし団子), where the dumpling is slathered with a thick sweet soya sauce glaze. Meanwhile, the hanami dango (花見団子; tricoloured skewered dumpling) is a popular flower-viewing snack in spring.
3. Yōkan (羊羹)
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A simple concoction of red bean paste, water, and kanten powder – a gelatinous substance derived from algae – will produce yōkan (羊羹), a classic summertime treat. Served chilled, the rich red bean jelly is typically enjoyed in thin slices and paired with tea.
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Some yōkan may also have chunks of chestnuts suspended in them, which make for a great contrast in flavour and texture. If you’re not fond of the firm texture that yōkan is known for, try mizu yōkan (水羊羹), a softer variant that’s made with a higher percentage of water.
4. Manjū (饅頭)
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Manjū (饅頭) comes in different shapes and sizes. The most modest wagashi consists of sweetened red bean paste enveloped in a piece of dough. It can be steamed or baked, and you can replace the red bean with other kinds of fillings, such as chestnut paste.
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Originating from China, manjū was introduced to Japan during the Muromachi period. Known as “mantou (饅頭)”, in Mandarin, the steamed bun’s meat filling was replaced with azuki beans. It turned out to be a big hit among monks, who aren’t allowed to eat meat.
In Miyajima, Hiroshima, you can find momiji manjū (紅葉饅頭; maple leaf-shaped manjū), a must-try regional speciality. You can even enjoy age momiji manjū (揚げ紅葉饅頭), which is momiji manjū that has been battered and deep-fried.
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The hotter months call for mizu manjū (水饅頭) – red bean paste wrapped with a jelly-like casing. Kuzu (葛), a type of starch made from Japanese arrowroot, gives mizu manjū its water-like appearance.
5. Monaka (最中)
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Monaka (最中) consists of azuki bean paste sandwiched between two crisp layers of rice wafer. It is said that its name was derived from the fact that the filling is loaded “right in the middle” (最中; saichū).
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Mould technology has progressed significantly since the Meiji era. Thanks to that, monaka now comes in a myriad of unorthodox forms, such as chrysanthemum and animal shapes, besides the usual circles and squares. The rice wafers also go well with other fillings such as ice cream or mochi.
6. Daifuku (大福)
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For a dose of good luck, have a daifuku (大福) – its name translates literally to “great luck”. This auspicious-sounding wagashi is essentially a thin, soft layer of mochi wrapped around a sweet red or white bean filling.
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The ichigo daifuku (苺大福), which comprises a whole strawberry encased within layers of bean paste and mochi, is one of the most popular kinds of daifuku. Some daifuku makers even skip the traditional bean filling altogether and replace them with seasonal fruits.
7. Botamochi/ Ohagi (ぼたもち・おはぎ)
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Botamochi (ぼたもち), or ohagi (おはぎ), is the inverted version of a typical wagashi – mochi is used as the filling, while red bean paste is used to wrap it.
A mixture of glutinous rice and Japanese short-grain rice (uruchimai; 粳米) is steamed and lightly pounded to ensure that the texture of the grains isn’t compromised. The sticky rice mixture is rolled into a ball and enveloped within a layer of bean paste. You can then dust it liberally with kinako (soybean powder) or ground black sesame.
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Botamochi and ohagi both refer to the same confectionery and can be used interchangeably. As they are named after the peony and Japanese clover that blooms in spring and autumn respectively, people use the word “botamochi” in spring and “ohagi” in autumn.
8. Kusamochi (草餅)
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Infused with the leaves of yomogi (蓬; Japanese mugwort), the white mochi in kusamochi takes on a vibrant deep green colour with specks of mugwort scattered across its surface.
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Japanese mugwort contains anti-inflammatory and anti-ageing properties, which is why kusamochi (草餅) can be considered a health food. But rather than eating it plain, most people pair it with kinako or a red bean filling, which increases the sugar content.
9. Warabi mochi (わらび餅)
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Unlike the bouncy chew of the typical mochi we’re used to, warabi mochi (わらび餅) has a gelatinous texture. This is due to the bracken starch that is traditionally used to make warabi mochi. Sugar and water are added to the heated starch, mixed, then left to cool and solidify. Once hardened, the translucent mochi is cut into cubes and coated liberally with kinako.
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As the mochi itself does not have much flavour, kuromitsu (黒蜜; brown sugar syrup) is usually served alongside for a touch of sweetness. These days, you can find warabi mochi in a variety of flavours ranging from matcha to black sesame.
10. Kashiwa mochi (柏餅)
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Every year on 5th May in Japan, kashiwa mochi (柏餅) is eaten to celebrate Children’s Day. Filled with sweet red bean or miso bean paste, the white mochi is then wrapped with a kashiwa (oak) leaf. The leaf is inedible and used for symbolic purposes as oak trees are synonymous with continued family lineage and prosperity.
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Although the different flavours of kashiwa mochi look similar on the outside, there’s a trick to identifying what kind of filling it contains. Kashiwa mochi filled with red bean paste is wrapped with the top of the oak leaf facing outwards, while those filled with miso bean paste have the bottom side facing out.
11. Sakura mochi (桜餅)
Kansai-style sakura mochi.
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Sakura mochi (桜餅) is a type of wagashi that is closely associated with cherry blossoms. The sweet pink mochi is filled with red bean paste and wrapped in a fragrant pickled cherry blossom leaf.
Kanto-style sakura mochi.
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There are types of sakura mochi. In the Kansai region, it is made with dōmyōjiko (道明寺粉; coarse glutinous rice flour), which yields a grainy mochi exterior. On the other hand, the Kanto-style uses shiratamako (白玉粉; refined rice flour) to make a crepe-like wrap.
The preserved leaves can be eaten – some enjoy the contrasting texture and brininess the leaf brings, while others prefer to remove it.
12. Hishi mochi (菱餅)
Sakura mochi (top) and hishi mochi (bottom).
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Come March and you’ll see hishi mochi (菱餅) pop up during Hinamatsuri (雛祭り), also known as Girls’ Day. The festival is held annually to celebrate and pray for the health and growth of girls in Japan.
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This tri-coloured, diamond-shaped layered wagashi is an indispensable ceremonial dessert due to its symbolic meaning. At the top sits the pink layer, which is said to have protective effects against evil spirits. White brings about longevity, while the bottom green layer wards off misfortune.
13. Mizu shingen mochi (水信玄餅)
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Best known as the “raindrop cake”, mizu shingen mochi (水信玄餅) became the talk of the town back in 2014. Its popularity is thanks to its unique appearance, which resembles a drop of fresh dew.
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The roots of this viral sensation can be traced back to the long-standing wagashi shop Kinseiken, located in Hokuto, Yamanashi Prefecture. After countless trials and experiments, the creators discovered the perfect ratio of agar to water for this delicate dessert.
A small amount of agar is added to fresh spring water obtained from Hakushu Town in Hokuto City and solidified to form this iconic dome. As the mochi has virtually no taste on its own, it is often served with kinako and kuromitsu.
14. Yatsuhashi (八ツ橋)
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A trip to Kyoto wouldn’t be complete without stopping at souvenir shops to get some yatsuhashi (八ツ橋), a speciality unique to the ancient capital. This regional wagashi can be baked, steamed, or eaten raw.
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The soft and chewy raw yatsuhashi is rolled into thin sheets and cut into squares. A dollop of red bean paste is dropped onto each square, which is then folded diagonally to form its signature triangular shape. Traditionally, yatsuhashi is flavoured with cinnamon, but you can find it in a variety of flavours nowadays.
15. Rakugan (落雁)
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Rakugan (落雁) is a type of traditional candy that is classified as higashi (干菓子) – dry wagashi with low moisture content. Like many other types of wagashi, the designs of rakugan are heavily inspired by seasonal motifs and elements of nature.
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The ingredients are simple – the traditional sweet is made with a mixture of glutinous rice flour and wasanbon (和三盆; finely grained traditional Japanese sugar). Once mixed and coloured, the mixture is pressed firmly into wooden moulds with intricate designs. Due to its low water content, rakugan crumbles easily and melts in your mouth.
16. Konpeitō (金平糖)
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Avid players of Animal Crossings: New Horizons will find konpeitō (金平糖) familiar as the star fragments in the game are shaped like these hard candies. Even the soot sprites in Spirited Away go nuts for some of these small star-shaped sweets – that’s the reward they get for working so hard at the bathhouse!
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These traditional hard candies come in vibrant colours and flavours. Brought to Japan from Portugal in 1546, the hard candy derived its name from the word “confeito”, which means “confection” in Portuguese. As sugar was expensive back then, konpeitō was regarded as a high-class commodity.
17. Senbei (煎餅)
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Beloved for its crispiness, senbei (煎餅) is a rice cracker that can be enjoyed as a dessert or savoury tea time snack. The most ubiquitous type of senbei is brushed with a soya sauce-based seasoning and wrapped with dried seaweed sheets.
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When it comes to regional differences, crunchy and more umami-packed senbei are popular in the Kanto area. Those found in Kansai tend to be lighter in flavour, slightly sweeter, and texturally delicate.
18. Taiyaki (鯛焼き)
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An indispensable staple of street food and a familiar sight during festivals, taiyaki (鯛焼き) is a fish-shaped pastry that is filled to the brim with sweetened red bean jam. Its name, “taiyaki”, literally translates to “baked (焼き) sea bream (鯛)”. The batter is poured into a fish-shaped cast iron mould to form the shape of a sea bream, which is traditionally hailed as an auspicious food.
Image credit: @kuroshiotaiyaki
Nowadays, taiyaki can also be stuffed with fillings such as custard and sweet potato. There is even croissant taiyaki, which incorporates the flaky layers of a croissant into the traditional wagashi.
19. Castella (カステラ)
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Introduced by the Portuguese in the 16th century, castella (カステラ) is Japan’s take on the western sponge cake. It is a fluffy sponge cake that is known for its sturdy yet moist texture.
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What sets castella apart from regular sponge cake is the use of bread flour instead of cake flour, as well as the addition of honey. For the best castella, visit Nagasaki – it is a regional speciality of the port city.
20. Dorayaki (どら焼き)
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One of the most recognisable Japanese confectioneries worldwide, thanks in part to Doraemon, dorayaki (どら焼き) consists of a red bean filling sandwiched between two round fluffy cakes.
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The round cakes look like mini pancakes, but they’re typically made with castella batter. As for the filling, the sky’s the limit. Some shops stuff their dorayaki with fresh cream, custard, or even butter with red beans.
Must-try dainty wagashi that are too pretty to eat
The world of wagashi is fascinating and beautiful. The next time you’re in Japan, have yourself a cultural food hunt and savour these delicately crafted traditional sweets.
For more articles on Japanese culture, check out these:
- Japanese New Year traditions
- Japanese loanwords
- Japanese sustainable habits
- Everyday mysteries in Japan
- Japanese slang to know