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The Beautiful World of Wagashi ~ A Beginner’s Guide for Better Enjoyment of Japanese Sweets

The wagashi has long been a beloved treat in Japan for not only its flavor and fragrance, but also its appealing appearance, and some may compare it to deeply tasteful bite-sized works of art. Having captivated the hearts of all Japanese young and old, the wagashi has also attracted many admirers from overseas with its beautiful, elegant sweetness. This guide’s purpose is to provide you with an understanding of not only its charm and peculiarities, or that it goes well with tea, but also how it is often made and eaten, and in general everything you need to enjoy the world of Japanese sweets.

Wagashi was originally created as something to be eaten alongside light or strong tea in the typical Japanese tea ceremony. It was designed to be both delicious and aesthetically pleasing. By the way, light tea is often served with higashi or dried candy, while strong tea often goes with namagashi, or fresh sweets.

The Kyoto-style wagashi often enjoyed in tea ceremonies is commonly called “jonamagashi”, or high-quality fresh sweets. Of course, aside from the art of tea, wagashi is also often used as presents and souvenirs, and in this way is beloved by many people.

And when people talk about enjoying wagashi, they are not just talking about the taste buds, but rather, enjoyment with all of a person’s five senses – hearing, taste, sight, smell and touch. Quite different from usual American or European candy, wagashi is often made to symbolize the current season, and to be pleasing and enjoyable to every human sense, and it is for this reason that wagashi is also often called the “Art of the Five Senses”.

Let us begin with sight and smell. Each and every kind of wagashi has its very own name, such as Harumachisou (Spring Grass), Akebono (Daybreak), or Kourinume (Red and White Plum Blossoms), and a shape, figure and beauty befitting the name and the history behind it. Especially with Kyoto wagashi, the shape and name of a piece of wagashi is often full of its maker’s seasonal sensibilities and aesthetic sense, and so people usually take the time to take in its appearance, consider its peculiarites, enjoy its fragrance and learn its story, to be able to enjoy it in a more intellectual way.

Well then, let’s move on to cutting the wagashi bite-sized and eat it… And stop. Look at the cut you just made. Many types of wagashi has work put into its inside parts as well, and is designed so that when you cut it into small pieces, the strawberry at the opening will look like the bud of a flower, or like a droplet pattern, to give the cutter a little surprise. And of course, the feeling of the wagashi as you pick it up with your fingers, whether fluffy, springy, and the rustling feel of the powder, is also something not to be missed.

And now finally, the eating. Please take your time, and let the taste sink in. You probably are feeling your senses being stimulated by its fragrance, taste, and sensation all at once. Please close your eyes, and carefully enjoy its taste while visualizing a natural, elegant scenery of the season, and understand that only with wagashi can you enjoy a beautiful Japanese scenery with just a piece of candy like this. And of course if you have the chance, please do enjoy it with a cup of tea, and share the flavor and feelings you are experiencing with the person drinking with you. The design of wagashi, with its everchanging expressions along the four seasons, is made one more level deeper, more meaningful with the addition of its name. Perhaps it is the reason why it is so often called “edible art”, “edible haiku” around the world. Of course, wagashi eaten in a tea ceremony has many rules attached to it, and it is perhaps because of this that the same piece of wagashi but in a more casual situation, to treat a visiting friend for example, is the most enjoyable because it is not bound by such restricting rules. But first, just grab a bite for yourself and check it out.

Top image:京都茶寮

This post is also available in: Japanese

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