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Traditional and Modern: 10 Must-Try Unique Japanese Sweets

Traditional and Modern: 10 Must-Try Unique Japanese Sweets

Date published: 16 May 2019
Last updated: 14 May 2019

Among many other things, Japan is famous for its food. In fact, some Japanese dishes are probably one of the better-known features of this country. Something that sometimes goes unnoticed, is the many amazing (and oftentimes unique) Japanese sweets that populate Japanese culinary culture.

Very much like other Japanese dishes, also there are a great number of Japanese sweets! Many of these traditional sweets belong exclusively to Japanese tradition and are generally encompassed by the term wagashi. Wagashi refers to typical Japanese confections that are usually served with a beverage or other dishes. Oftentimes they are created specifically to accompany a specific tea or drink.

While Japanese cuisine is reach of sweets such as cakes, baked goods, and pastries, you’ll find that many of the “very Japanese” sweets are wagashi.
While some of these have found their place on dessert menus abroad, most tend to be available just in Japan. We’ve selected just 10 of the must-try ones for when you visit the country!

1. Senbei and Arare

1. Senbei and Arare

It's fitting to start talking about Japanese sweets with senbei and arare. These snacks are not only widely popular in Japan, but they have been accompanying people's meals for over 1000 years.

Senbei and arare are crackers you'll find in a variety of shapes and flavors. Senbei are commonly known in the West as 'rice crackers', and they can be found salty, flavored with soy sauce, and even wrapped in nori (Japanese seaweed). But there are dozens of sweet ones, usually served with green tea. The Kansai senbei is made with glutinous rice and tends to be more delicate and lightly seasoned than its Kanto counterpart which are crunchier and more richly flavored.

Arare are similar to senbei. What really distinguishes the two is the shape. Arare are prepared to resemble snow pellets. They are smaller than senbei, but both snacks share the variety of ways in which they can be prepared. Arare, too can be salty or sweet. They are one of the preferred snacks accompanying beer, but also (in different varieties) tea and other drinks.

Arare are traditionally consumed during the Hinamatsuri festival (Girls Day in Japan) on May 3. These arare are usually very colorful, ranging from pink to green, white, yellow, brown and more.

2. Coffee Jelly

2. Coffee Jelly

Coffee Jelly is perhaps one of the more popular deserts in Japan. It's prepared by mixing sweetened coffee with agar, a gelatin made from red algae. The jelly is then served on its own, or mixed with a variety of drinks, such as milk, coffee, shakes, or ice cream floats, sundaes, and more.

Coffee Jelly is now mostly prepared in Japan, but its origins seem to be in the early 19th century in England. During that time it became popular in the United States as well - although the preparation in the west used and uses gelatin, instead of agar. This staple desert, unlike many others belonging to a long-lasting Japanese tradition, has made its appearance in the country only in the second decade of the 20th century. Today you can find it at many cafes and restaurants, and even at convenience stores in Japan!

3. Daifuku

3. Daifuku

Daifuku or Daifukumochi is a small round mochi filled with a variety of ingredients, most commonly pureed adzuki red beans. Mochi is a glutinous rice cake used for a variety of dishes, daifuku being one of the most popular. This confection usually comes in two sizes, small, and large (about the size of a hand's palm). The cakes are covered with starch, and at times sugar.

At its inception, daifuku was called Habutai Mochi (belly thick rice cake), describing its nature and preparation. Later its name changed to Daifuku (big belly). The name stuck through the centuries because the pronunciation of "belly" and that of "luck" is the same in Japanese, making the name of the cake "Great Luck Rice Cake".

Daifuku can also be made into an ice cream. One variation, called Yukimi Daifuku (Snow-viewing Daifuku), is a mochi cake filled with vanilla, chocolate, or green tea ice cream, and then dipped in coconut milk.

Another very popular variation of daifuku is Ichigo Daifuku (strawberry daifuku). This desert is served only during strawberry season and it's prepared by wrapping a strawberry with a layer of mochi and red beans paste, making for a very tasty and original treat.

4. Dorayaki

4. Dorayaki

Some of you may know dorayaki from the very famous manga and anime series Doraemon. In the series, the character which gives the name to the manga is addicted to dorayaki. He consumes them in massive amounts and they are often used as a plot device in various episodes.

Dorayaki is a pancake-like sandwich made from castella, a Nagasaki specialty soft cake introduced in Japan by Portuguese merchants in the 16th century. The cake is then filled with red beans paste.
The word dora in Japanese means "gong", and given the shape of this treat, this is probably the origin of its name.

Dorayaki are very popular across Japan, but sometimes, depending on the area, they may have another name. If you're ever craving Dorayaki while in Kansai (for example in Osaka, Kyoto, or Nara), ask for a mikasa.

5. Manju

5. Manju

Manju is a confection which presents a myriad of varieties, but the most common one is an outside layer made with flour, rice powder, buckwheat, and kudzu (a plant). The filling is of red beans paste (possibly the most common ingredient for Japanese sweets). Other fillings include chestnut jam (Kuri Manju), or orange-flavored cream.

Similarly to other sweets and dishes in general belonging to Japanese culture, manju, too, has been modified in many areas of Japan. The Okinawan manju (also very popular in Hawaii), is prepared with a filling of purple sweet potatoes, butter, milk, sugar, and salt, or with various kinds of bean paste.

Saitama, a prefecture north of Tokyo, has its own Jumangoku Manju. The outer layer is prepared with more rice, giving it a different texture, and the red beans paste is prepared without using the peel of the beans, making it smoother. The preparation of this dessert has been part of Saitama tradition since 1945, and the preparation is said to have remained exactly the same.

You can also enjoy a green tea manju, with a green, tea-flavored outer layer.

Finally, if you're looking for a perfect souvenir, look for the Momiji Manju. These are manju prepared in the shape of the famous Japanese maple trees' leaves (momiji) and have been literally created to be souvenirs. In the late Meiji period, Takatsu Tsunesuke, a wagashi (Japanese sweets) maker was commissioned by a ryokan (Japanese-style hotel) owner to craft sweets that would be good souvenirs for visitors. The ryokan was located in the so called Momiji Valley in Miyajima, which inspired Tsunesuke to perfect the Momiji Manju.

6. Mochi

6. Mochi

Mochi is one of the main staples of Japanese food, especially when it comes to sweets.

Mochi is a rice cake made of glutinous rice, and prepared by pounding it into a paste, and modeling it into the desired shape.

Mochi is prepared all year-round, but it's such an important component of Japanese culture that there's a ceremony called mochitsuki (mochi preparation), which takes place around the last day of the year (different families do it on different days, trying to do it on a "lucky" day according to the calendar).

Mochi can be steamed, grilled, boiled, and added to a variety of other ingredients. More importantly, it makes for amazing desserts.

Sakura mochi is one of the prettiest deserts out there. Usually favored during spring as a snack to eat during cherry flowers viewing, it's also the traditional desert for Girl's Day (March 3).

Sakura mochi is a pink-colored rice cake filled with red beans paste, and wrapped in a sakura tree leaf.
An all-time favorite summer dessert in Japan is Kuzumochi. This extremely light dessert is made with mochi, kudzu powder, sugar and water. Kuzumochi is served chilled, topped with kuromitsu (lit. black honey, a Japanese syrup) and kinako (roasted soybeans flour).

Mochi is also used for one of the most important dishes in Japanese tradition. Hanabiramochi is a confection usually eaten at the beginning of the year, following the tradition set by the imperial families of the past who would celebrate the beginning of the year, and many other important events, by eating this dessert.

The preparation and shape of hanabiramochi are strictly defined by tradition. The shape is that of a petal. The mochi layers must be of a light pink, and mustn't seal the filling, made of red beans paste, sweetened mung beans and a flavored burdock strip.

This desert is also rich of symbolism with its colors being evocative not only of the ume (plum) and sakura blossoms (which themselves represent purity, perseverance, and renewal), but also of the new year. The burdock (gobo) represents pressed ayu, a fish exclusive to east Asia, symbolic of long life.

7. Namagashi

7. Namagashi

Namagashi are additive free, always freshly made wagashi that usually accompany tea ceremonies.

Namagashi are shaped to reflect the season in which they are served. Namagashi makers are often regarded as masters (similarly to sushi chefs) and learning how to properly prepare this treat can take decades, with techniques that require precision, stamina, creativity, and balancing of textures and flavors.

While they can be prepared in numerous different ways, namagashi often contain fruit jelly, or other gelatins, or sweetened beans paste.

8. Taiyaki

8. Taiyaki

Taiyaki is a curious fish-shaped cake, named after the fish it represents tai – or sea bream.

The outer layer is made with pancake, or waffle batter. The fillings is where this sweet becomes even more original. The most common one is red beans, but it can also be found with fillings of custard, chocolate, and sweet potatoes. Conspicuously absent is any fish ingredient, so no need to worry about biting into these desserts and discovering a fishy surprise! Despite being technically desserts, you can also find them with a cheese filling, and, in some rare cases, even with gyoza, okonomiyaki, or sausage fillings.

Taiyaki made their appearance in Japan during the Meiji period, but disappeared during WWII, due to the shortage of food.

After Japan recovered from the war, they made a sweeping comeback and are now extremely common as street food, and one of the most popular foods served during festivals all over the country.

9. Yatsuhashi

9. Yatsuhashi

This confection is one of the Japanese sweets that became very popular especially as a souvenir, gaining the nickname of Miyagegashi (lit. souvenir sweet).
Yatsuhashi is one of the main typical products of Kyoto and it's made with mochi, sugar, and cinnamon.

There are actually two varieties of yatsuhashi: one has a quite hard texture (as it’s baked) and an intense aroma coming from the cinnamon spice. The other type of yatsuhashi, called Nama Yatsuhashi, is made from steamed mochi that’s cut into a thin triangular shape and served as is, or with a filling of red beans (or other sweet) paste.

If you happen to be in Kyoto during your trip to Japan, you will most likely stumble upon this treat. Don't miss out.

10. Yokan

10. Yokan

Yokan is another gelatinous dessert made with agar, sugar, and red beans. In Japan you'll find it in small blocks, or slices.

Yokan makes for a perfect accompanying dessert for tea, coffee, cookies, or other sweets.
Mizu yokan (water yokan) is made using more water than its more standard counterpart, making for a lighter and more refreshing dessert, usually served in summer.

Yokan seems to have a very long history, having been introduced to Japan, almost 1000 years ago by Zen monks. This sweet originated in China where the gelatin component of Yokan derived from boiled sheep fat.
Given that Buddhism forbids the killing or eating of animals, the monks replaced the animal gelatin.

Yokan can be found also with a green tea flavoring (in this case white beans instead of red beans are used, since they have a less dominant flavor). Yokan can also contain chopped chestnuts, figs, sweet potatoes, and other flavors, making it a never-boring dessert.

Those of you visiting the country in summer will be happy to know that June 16 is Wagashi Day in Japan. That's right, a nation-wide 1200 years old celebration of amazing Japanese sweets, during which wagashi makers from all over Japan will be serving their best products!

Written by:

Lucio Maurizi

Lucio Maurizi

Lucio Maurizi is an Italian writer, photographer, and streamer. He spent 10 years in the United States and currently lives in Japan, focusing on creating articles and channels dedicated to the Land of the Rising Sun. He loves any form of storytelling, natto, and wasabi, and is desperately trying to make time to work on his novel. On Instagram @that_italian_guy_in_japan.

*This information is from the time of this article's publication.
*Prices and options mentioned are subject to change.
*Unless stated otherwise, all prices include tax.

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