Tour Japan With Traditional Sweets As Your Guide - 5 Delicious Japanese Wagashi Treats

Nationwide Food Wagashi 2020.06.23
Is it really a trip to Japan if you don't indulge in a little red bean mochi and matcha wagashi?

Wagashi ・ Traditional Japanese Sweets

Whether you're looking for a break from sightseeing, want to relax and escape from the downpour during Japan's rainy season, or just need a little bit of sugar to keep you going during your travels in Japan, Japan's many wagashi (和菓子) shops, specializing in traditional Japanese sweets, are the perfect little oases. 

① Kohakuto in Kyoto

Kyoto is most famous for yatsuhashi (八ッ橋), sheets of mochi often baked or filled with red bean. It's also the home of mitarashi dango (みたらし団子), which is a favorite of certain Japankuru team members. But thanks to hundreds of years of history and culture, Kyoto is a great place to try wagashi of all kinds, including varieties that are less wide-spread these days. Kohakuto (琥珀等) is a kind of sugary-sweet Japanese jelly candy, generally made with kanten instead of gelatin, giving it a unique texture and making it available to vegetarians.
We tried this kohakuto in a little wagashi shop down a side street in Kyoto, called Tachibanaya. Not only was there a wealth of seasonal sweets available in the tiny shop, but the owner brought out a selection of old-fashioned wagashi making tools for us to look at!

② Dorayaki in Tokyo

Of course, while Tokyo's history as a cultural center is shorter than Kyoto, it's still an obvious destination for everything traditionally Japanese! Which means it's a great place to find a high-end wagashi cafe and treat yourself to some skillfully made dorayaki―Japanese pancake sandwiches filled with red bean (or sometimes other treats like custard).
This dorayaki, flavored with red bean and an extra dose of kokuto (黒糖, Japanese brown sugar) came from Ichiya, a wagashi shop and cafe in Tokyo Mizumachi, between Asakusa and Tokyo Skytree.

③ Manju and Matcha in Aizu

Regions like Aizu, in the far west of Fukushima, suffer from the knee-jerk reaction to hearing "Fukushima". But despite the lack of information that reaches the English-speaking world, Fukushima is actually a huge area, and not a tiny disaster zone, and Aizu is perfectly safe. It's also full of beautiful natural scenery and some pretty tasty wagashi. So it's the perfect place to try the unique Japanese creation of tempura kokuto manju, little brown sugar cakes filled with red bean and coated in a layer of crunchy tempura. (Then they're served with a dash of soy sauce!!)
We found these little crunchy-soft cakes at Tsuruga Castle, which is also home to Rinkaku Teahouse and Garden. The manju were being sold at a little snack shop on the other side of the castle, but we couldn't resist the chance to stop into Rinkaku afterward and sip a cup of matcha (iced because of the warm weather!) surrounded by the beautiful teahouse garden.

④ Amanatto in Kanazawa

In Kanazawa we were told to try rakugan (落雁), little sweets made of sugar pressed into beautiful molds. While actually touring the area, though, we were even more fascinated by the city's amanatto (甘納豆)! Amanatto are sweetened beans, made by boiling azuki or black beans (or sometimes other legumes) in sugar, dried, and then coated in another layer of sugar for good measure. The simple sweetness of the beans means they pair excellently with a cup of bitter green tea.
In Kanazawa, we'd recommend the amanatto at Amanatto Kawamura, which is in the traditional teahouse neighborhood of Nishi Chaya-Gai. Not only is it a great place to try more varieties of sweet beans than you could ever have imagined, but the surrounding area is full of gorgeous Japanese architecture and fascinating teahouse history.

⑤ Namagashi in Tochigi

Namagashi (生菓子) are wagashi made with ingredients like bean paste or fruit jelly, and they maintain a certain level of moisture, meaning they have to be eaten fresh! For the wagashi-lover, there's certainly no better way to eat the freshest namagashi than to make the sweets yourself. Namagashi are carefully shaped by hand, molded and delicately pressed to create the shapes of beautiful flowers and natural features, all from natural ingredients. While the recipe might be quite simple, becoming a pro at wagashi chef is no easy task―but there's no reward quite like tasting sweet success and eating the fruits of your labor when you're done!
We got to try making our own traditional bean paste sweets at Yamamoto Kashi, an old-fashioned wagashi shop in Tochigi, founded in the 25th year of Japan's Meiji era (1892)! The master wagashi-makers at the store haven't quite been around since it opened, but they do have decades of experience, making their wagashi workshops fascinating (and pretty fun).

Ready to explore Japan in search of traditional sweets and new wagashi flavors? We'd love to hear about your future itineraries and help you plan on the Japankuru twitter, instagram, and facebook!
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