Comprehensive Guide to Wagashi Japanese Traditional Japanese Sweets

You might have seen Wagashi lined up in Japanese sweet shops looking like beautiful pieces of art or display pieces. Or you might have heard about their deeply rooted places in Japanese culture and being served at a Japanese tea ceremony.

As a general rule, Wagashi is a traditional Japanese confection made of fruit, bean paste, and rice. The term Wagashi was created during the Meiji Period between 1861 to 1912. However, traditional sweets have existed long before the name. 

So here we are today to answer any questions you might have previously had about these beautiful, delicious, and culturally significant Japanese delicacies. By the end of this article, you will be confident enough to start your exploration of the fascinating world of Wagashi.

What is Wagashi? 

Wagashi is a broad term used to describe traditional Japanese confections or sweets. Below are some characteristics that will help you set them apart from other snacks and sweet treats.

  • They are a significant part of Japanese culture, heritage, and traditions, especially in the refined art of traditional Japanese Tea Ceremonies.
  • Visual aesthetics are just as important as taste when it comes to Wagashi. They are made in different shapes, colors, and designs. Wagashi is not solely for consumption but appreciating the beauty of their visual appearance is a significant part of enjoying Wagashi.
  • They are usually made using plant-based traditional Japanese ingredients.
  • Wagashi is a refined art, and they usually feature taste and appearance that are elegant, subtle, and sophisticated. Hence, the sweetness in Wagashi tends to be more subdued compared to other sweets.
  • Wagashi are premium confection and hence are more expensive than simple Japanese confection.
  • Through its naming, ingredients used, taste, and appearance, each piece of Wagashi serve to tell a story based on the season, local natural beauty, a poetic concept, historical event, etc.
  • The making of Wagashi is an artisanal craft and requires expertise, hard work, attention to detail, and creativity on the maker’s part.
  • Wagashi are popular in Japan as “omiyage” items or souvenirs as different localities have their version of Wagashi.


How Wagashi Came to Be. 

The term ‘Wagashi’ was first coined during the Meiji period (1868-1912), during which Western influence and modernization were rapidly changing the cultural and societal scene in Japan. Similar to the term ‘Wa – Shoku,’ which means ‘Japanese – Cuisine,’ the prefix “Wa” means ‘Wafu’ or ‘traditional Japanese’ and distinguishes different terms from their Western counterparts. Although the necessity of using the ‘Wagashi’ to separate them from Western sweets only became necessary during this era, the sweets described today as Wagashi have been enjoyed in Japan for centuries. It was just that they were not called Wagashi.

The term ‘Wagashi’ consists of two different Japanese characters, representing essential aspects of Wagashi.

  • Wa (和): This comes from the word Wafuu which means ‘traditional Japanese style.’
  • Gashi (or Okashi) (菓子): This means snacks, sweets, treats, desserts, etc., in Japanese.


 This is how Wagashi developed from their most primitive forms to the refined artistic form they come in today.

  • Yayoi period (300 B.C. – 300 A.D.): People used to have fruits and nuts as snacks, and they were also used as offerings for deities. The word ‘Okashi’ is derived from the word for ‘fruits’ for this reason. Also, natural sweetness found in plant-based materials in modern ‘Wagashi’ comes from this tradition.
  • Asuka period (538-710): Trade with China flourished, and different sweets and recipes were introduced to  Japan. One particular sweet treat called ‘Kara-Kudamono’ made from soybeans, rice flour, and wheat is known to be the origins of Wagashi. However, at this point, sugar was a rare luxury good, and sweet treats were reserved only for the Imperial court and as religious offerings.
  • Kamakura Period (1185-1333): During this time, the Japanese tea ceremony started to be practiced by Zen monks, and sweet treats were served during these ceremonies as an accompaniment to the Matcha green tea. This is how ‘Wagashi’ became an integral part of the Japanese tea ceremony.
  • Muromachi period (1336-1573): Increasing trade between China and Japan allowed sugar to become a common household ingredient by the end of the Muromachi periodAlso, the tea ceremony started to be practiced not only by the Zen monks but also by upper-class citizens and Samurais as well, which made the culture of Wagashi more widespread among the societyDuring this time, trade with countries like Portugal and Spain introduced sweets like caramels, Konpeito, and Castella (sweet cake) into Japan, which had a great influence on the development of new varieties of Wagashi.
  • Edo Period (1603-1868): This is the time during which the production, popularity, and availability of Wagashi really exploded. Refined white sugar became widely available throughout Japan as domestic production of sugar also took off. In Kyoto and the capital (Edo), many specialty Wagashi shops were established and competed against each other to create the best Wagashi variations. Many of the classic Wagashi sweets that we enjoy today were created during this period.
  • Meiji Period (1868-1912): An era of rapid modernization and westernization saw increased trade with the Western world. To distinguish the traditional Japanese sweets from the others, the term “Wagashi” was born.


What is Wagashi Made Of?

There are no pre-defined restrictions of what can or cannot be used to make Wagashi when it comes to ingredients. That being said, Wagashi are made predominantly using plant-based ingredients such as starch derived from plant sources, fruits, nuts, leaves, beans, etc. Animal products are rarely used, eggs being the only exception. Non-plant ingredients such as butter, milk, and cream might be used depending on the variation. Below are some of the most commonly used elements to make Wagashi.

The influence of season in the ingredients used to make Wagashi is a critical aspect. As there is a strong connection between the concept of four seasons and Wagashi, Wagashi-maker tries to incorporate seasonal Japanese ingredients for making the Wagashi representative of the unique beauty of the ongoing season.

  • Beans

From the earliest days of Wagashi, beans have been an integral part of Wagashi-making. They are so crucial that beans are called “The Life of Wagashi.” The most common form in which beans are used in Wagashi is in the form of paste. However, it is not as simple as that.

The type of the beans, the flavoring, sweetness, level of coarseness, whether the beans are skinned or not, and many other factors concerning the beans are carefully decided by the individual Wagashi craftsman. Common beans used in Wagashi are Japanese red beans (Adzuki), white beans, green beans, sweet peas, etc.


  • Flour

Japanese rice flour (can be glutinous or the non-glutinous regular rice flour), wheat flour, potato (regular or sweet) starch, Kinako (soybean powder), etc., are used. Whole rice grains cooked and then pounded (like in Mochi) are also commonly used instead of flour.

Two other particular kinds of Japanese flours called ‘Kanten’ and ‘Kudzu’ are widely used ingredients in Wagashi making. Kudzu is the dry powdered form of the roots of Kudzu plants, which has a distinct flavor and thickening properties. ‘Kanten’ is similar to agar and is a dry powder made from red edible seaweed. Considered to be a superfood, Kanten has zero calories and high-fiber content.


  • Sugar

Granulated sugar, caster sugar, Wasanbon sugar (premium-grade, fine-grained Japanese sugar), Kurozato (Japanese unrefined black sugar made from sugar canes), etc., are used to make Wagashi. 


  • Fruits, nuts, and other ingredients

Fruits and nuts are a vital ingredient in the making of Wagashi as they play the most prominent role in representing the season. Common fruits and nuts used to make Wagashi are Japanese plums, persimmons, peaches, pears, mandarin, chestnuts, walnuts, Japanese cherries (even the leaves and flower petals are used), etc.

Black and white sesame seeds in seed or paste form, Matcha (powder, extract, or whole leaves), ginger, and burdock roots are also ingredients commonly used to make Wagashi.


Classification and Variations of Wagashi.

Since there are so many kinds of Wagashi, it can be tricky to classify them under a set of pre-defined categories. Since Wagashi is also intertwined with so many different concepts such as seasons, festivals, tea-ceremonies, etc., there are other ways of categorizing them. That being said, Wagashi are most commonly classified into three major groups based on moisture content and longevity.

  1. Namagashi (生菓子) (Fresh sweets): More than 30% moisture content
  2. Han-Namagashi (半生菓子) (Semi-perishable/ half-dry sweets) : 10% - 30% Moisture content
  3. Higashi (干菓子) (Dry sweets): Less than 10% moisture content


As you can guess, the shelf-life or longevity of the three groups follows the general rule:

Higashi > Han-Namagashi > Namagashi

Each of these three groups has sub-categories of Wagashi, which are based on the methods used to make them. The sub-categories are as follows:

  • Mochimono: Made by using Mochi rice (glutinous rice) in the form of grains or flour. Sometimes, sweets made from rice flour or grains in general (even the regular non-glutinous rice) are included in this category.
  • Mushimono: Wagashi cooked by steaming.
  • Yakimono: Sweets prepared by baking. The baking can be done through various processes and equipment such as grilling, baking on a metal plate, inside an oven, etc.
  • Nagashimono: These are made by pouring liquid or semi-liquid batter into a molding cast.
  • Nerimono: Made by shaping or kneading bean paste. Thickening or binding agents are also commonly used.
  • Okamono: These are made by combining components that have been prepared using various techniques.
  • Uchimono: Made by placing a batter that is usually made of coarse glutinous rice flour or soybean flour mixed with sweetening ingredients in a wooden mold and then hardening the batter through pressing and beating
  • Agemono: Made by deep-frying


A summarized chart showing the classification of Wagashi

Broad Classification (Moisture content/Longevity)






Sekihan, Ohagi, Daifuku, Dango  


Imagwayaki, Castella, Dorayaki, Kintsuba


Age-Geppei, An-Donuts


Warabi-mochi, Uiro, Steamed Manju


Gyuhi, Nerikiri


Tokoroten, Mizu-Yokan






Monaka, Kanoko


Momoyama , Chatsu












Arare, Senbei








Most Common Wagashi Variations.


What we saw above is just a handful among the countless different variations of Wagashi. However, we would like to introduce you to some of the most iconic and popular Wagashi variations that have etched their places in the Wagashi scene for centuries due to their cultural significance, artistic beauty, and remarkable taste.



Dango is small chewy balls made using glutinous rice flour and water mixture. They usually come as three to four bite-sized balls on a bamboo skewer with toppings such as sweet red bean paste, sweet and savory sauce made of soy sauce, Kinako (nutty soybean powder), etc.



Daifuku is a type of Mochi (Japanese glutinous rice cake) and can come in many different forms, flavors, and colors. It consists of an outer Mochi skin which is sticky and chewy surrounding a sweet filling usually made from red bean paste.



If you search for images of Wagashi on the internet, some of the most common photos you will see are of Nerikiri. They are beautifully, colorfully, and artistically crafted - their shapes resemble objects of nature such as flowers, birds, fruits, leaves, etc. The delicate dough of Nerikiri is made by mixing Gyuhi (a softer variety of Mochi), white bean paste, and Chinese potatoes. Different colors are added to this dough, and then it is hand-molded into various shapes and designs around a central sweet filling made from bean paste. Nerikiri is one of the most common Wagashi used at Japanese tea ceremonies, and they play an essential role in representing the Japanese seasonal changes.



Monaka consists of a sweet filling sandwiched between two thin layers of crispy wafers made from rice flour. The sweet filling can be made with various ingredients such as red bean, white bean, sesame, Matcha, chestnut, etc. Contemporary Monaka can also have ice cream as a filling. As the rice wafer is made by baking kneaded glutinous rice in different molding casts, Monaka can come in various shapes – round, square, triangular, chrysanthemum flower, cherry blossoms, etc.



Yokan is one of the oldest types of Wagashi, and although there are many different kinds, the essential ingredients of Yokan are bean paste, agar, and sugar. Depending on the variation, other ingredients used to make Yokan are Matcha, white bean paste, sesame, plum, chestnut, etc. It is usually sold in block forms which are cut into elegant slices when served. It has a solid jelly-like texture. Some of the main types of Yokan are:

  • Hon-Neriyokan: This is the most common and basic form of Yokan that is made by pouring in a mixture of agar-agar, water, red bean paste, and other ingredients depending on the variety into a mold and then letting it cool down and harden.
  • Mizu-Yokan: Translated as ‘Water-Yokan,’ this Yokan has a higher water content than the other versions and has a fresher taste, softer texture, and more subdued sweetness. This version of Yokan is a summer specialty.
  • Kurimushi Yokan: ‘Kuri’ means ‘Japanese chestnut’ and ‘Mushi’ means ‘to steam.’ This particular kind of Yokan is considered to be an extra-luxurious Wagashi. It has pieces of steamed molasses-coated chestnut scattered throughout the Yokan or as a gorgeous golden top layer on the upper part of the Yokan’s block. It is an autumn specialty.



Manju is a classic Wagashi with more than 100 different variations depending on various factors such as the design, shape, type of flour used in the dough, and the filling. The two most important types of Manju are:

  • Kurimanju: Kurimanju comes in spherical shapes with a dough layer made of wheat flour, eggs, condensed milk, sugar, and other ingredients surrounding a filling made from white bean paste and chestnut (pieces or whole) marinated in molasses. The top surface of Kurimanju has a beautiful brown mark made by applying egg yolk on the surface and then baking it in the oven.
  • Joyomanju: The dough is made by mixing rice flour, sugar, and grated Chinese yams. A skin made from this dough is wrapped around a sweet bean paste filling, molded into a spherical ball, and then steamed.



Originating in Kyoto during the mid-Edo period, Kintsuba has a long history in Japan. Instead of bean ‘paste,’ large grain azuki beans are used to make the filling of Kintsuba, giving it a heartier bite compared to many other Wagashi. This filling is wrapped in a dough made from wheat flour, and then it is based on a copper plate. This copper plate is coated with sesame oil, which imparts a delicious flavor to the toasty skin of Kintsuba.



Dorayaki has two pancake-like patties sandwiching a sweet filling of red bean paste. The dough for the patty cakes is made using eggs, wheat flour, sugar, honey, etc., and then baked on a copper plate. Although it might sound like a casual snack, Dorayaki makers go to extreme lengths to perfect the dough’s texture and fluffiness, the quality of the filling, and the perfect baking level.

Fun facts about Dorayaki:

  • “Dora” is the name of a traditional musical instrument. Legend has it that the name of this Wagashi comes from the fact that a Samurai forgot his ‘Dora’ at a farmer’s house one day, and the farmer used this ‘Dora’ to bake a pancake.
  • Dorayaki is the favorite food of Doraemon, who is one of the most iconic Japanese manga characters.



Among Wagashi sweets, Castella probably has the most significant Western influences. It was originally developed during the 16th century when Portuguese merchants brought the original version to Japan. It is made by mixing eggs, sugar, wheat flour, honey, sugar syrup, and other ingredients depending on the variables such as Matcha, brown sugar, etc., to make a batter which is poured into a rectangular mold and then baked in an oven. Every castella artisan strives to achieve the perfect texture of Castella – airy, moist, fluffy, and delicate, without using any leavening.



Wasanbonto-no-Uchigashi comes in all kinds of shapes, colors, and designs. They are one of the most commonly served Wagashi at formal Japanese tea ceremonies as they represent different seasons and aspects of nature. Wasanbonto no Uchigashi are made using a special kind of sugar called ‘Wasanbonto.’ This is a traditional Japanese sugar made from a sugar cane variety called Chikuto grown only in some areas of Japan. Wasanbonto has a distinctive flavor and a smooth, melt-in-the-mouth texture that cannot be found in any other kind of sugar.



Mochi is a broad term that covers Japanese sticky rice cakes. There are countless different variations of Mochi, but not all Mochi can be said to have the status of being a Wagashi.

Some of the most prominent types of Wagashi Mochi are:

  • Sakura Mochi: The dough of Sakura Mochi is made by pounding steamed Japanese glutinous rice. The dough has a pink color with the addition of cherry blossom extract. The pink dough skin is then wrapped around a sweet red bean paste filling. Sakura Mochi has a salty pickled cherry leaf elegantly wrapped around it on the outermost layer. This Wagashi is made for spring and Girl’s Day celebrations as it has a strong Sakura (cherry blossom) theme.
  • Kusa Mochi: Kusa mochi’s Mochi dough has a characteristic green color and pleasantly grassy flavor due to Japanese mugwort leaves. The center of the Mochi is filled with red bean paste.
  • Kashiwa Mochi: Kashiwa Mochi has a special heartiness because it is steamed twice – first the dough itself, and then after the dough is wrapped around a sweet bean filling. Kashiwa Mochi comes wrapped beautifully inside a Japanese oak leaf. They can be found in Wagashi shops during April and early May.
  • Uguisu Mochi: The melodic singing of the Uguisu bird (Japanese bush warbler) is known to be among the first signs of spring’s arrival. This Mochi is named after this bird. It is made from Gyuhi (a more delicate version of Mochi) wrapped around a sweet bean paste filling. The two corners of the Mochi dough are tapered, and then the whole Mochi is sprinkled with green soybean powder to make it look like the Uguisu bird.
  • Ohagi: Although it does not have Mochi in its name, Ohagi is one of the most popular Wagashi made using steamed Japanese Mochi rice. The sticky Mochi rice is steamed and then rolled into delicately shaped balls or ovals and then covered with different ingredients such as smooth or coarse red bean paste, Kinako powder, Matcha powder, etc.





How are Wagashi Related to Seasons in Japan?

In Japan, seasons are not just the surrounding weather and climate. It is a concept that is lived, experienced, and celebrated through Japanese culture, art, literature, cuisine, festivals, and many other aspects of daily life in Japan. There are four distinct seasons in Japan – spring (March-May), summer (June-August), autumn (September-November), and winter (December-February). This concept of four seasons is a recurring theme in Japanese traditions, heritage, and culture.

Wagashi is a major Japanese tradition that has an inseparable connection to seasons and the transition of seasons in Japan. The relationship Wagashi has with seasons can be seen in different aspects of Wagashi.


  • Seasonal availability: Many Wagashi variations are made only during a specific season. If you go to the same Wagashi shop or a Japanese tea salon, you will not find the same Wagashi variations in different seasons. For example, Sakura Mochi, the cherry blossom-themed Wagashi, will be only available during the spring season.
  • Seasonal ingredients: Many Wagashi variations incorporate season-specific elements to accentuate the celebration of that particular season during which the Wagashi is made. For example, fruits and nuts such as persimmon and chestnuts are symbols of autumn in Japan, so they are used to make Wagashi that are enjoyed during autumn.
  • Shapes, designs, and colors of Wagashi change according to the season: Wagashi can take different colors and shapes. For example, Nerikiri and Wasanbonto no Uchigashi are made in a way so that they reflect various aspects of the particular season. For instance, they have fall-themed colors such as bright orange, red, and yellow during autumn and cooler colors like purple and blue during summer. The shapes also change depending on the season, such as shapes of cherry blossoms in spring and shapes of pine trees, cranes, and bamboos in winter to celebrate the coming of New Year.


Importance of Wagashi in Japanese Tea Ceremony.

The traditional Japanese tea ceremony, a ceremonial preparation of powdered Matcha green tea, is one of the three prominent Japanese classical arts of refinement. And this tea ceremony would be impossible without Wagashi. The inseparable relationship between the two is apparent from how they evolved throughout history. The sweetness of Wagashi perfectly complements the bitter earthy taste of Japanese Matcha green tea. However, it is not only about the taste.

The Japanese tea ceremony has its roots in Zen Buddhism. Every aspect, such as tools, rules, gestures, seating arrangement, and even the conversation, has spiritual and symbolic meaning. The same is true for Wagashi, as it is an integral part of the ceremony.


In a formal tea ceremony, Wagashi is not ‘eaten’ but ‘appreciated’ through all the senses.

  • Sight: The guest has to formally pay attention to the appearance of the Wagashi and take time to thoroughly observe the fine details of the visual aesthetics of the Wagashi before eating it.
  • Touch: The texture of the Wagshi is experienced first when it is sliced using the ‘kuromoji (a special wooden pick used as cutlery for Wagashi) and then as mouth feel when it is being eaten.
  • Smell: The aroma and the flavor of the Wagashi has to be appreciated before tasting it.
  • Taste: Small, slow bites should be taken to appreciate every subtle taste hidden within the Wagashi.
  • Sound: A specific set of conversations between the guest and the person making the tea which involved asking and answering questions about the Wagashi. The tea maker explains why this particular Wagashi was chosen, the name of the Wagashi, the story behind it, what it represents, from which artisan Wagashi-maker it was purchased, etc.


Wagashi is divided into two main categories depending on what kind of tea is served at a Japanese tea ceremony.

  • Omogashi (Moist sweets): Served with Koicha (thick Matcha). Example: Nerikiri
  • Higashi (Dry Sweets): Served with Usu-Cha (thin Matcha). Example: Wasanbonto-no-Uchigashi


Within the tea ceremony, Wagashi cannot be served on any plate, nor can it be eaten in any way you like. There are certain etiquettes and tools involved with Wagashi in a tea ceremony.

  • The plate: Depending on the type of ceremony, the plate that Wagashi is served on can be small individual plates or one big flat bowl holding Wagashi for multiple guests. These plates are chosen according to the season and match the Wagashi perfectly. For example, in summer, it might be transparent glassware, and in other times it can be exquisitely handcrafted lacquerware or an artistic wooden stand or trays.
  • The Cutlery: The specially designed traditional tool for cutting or slicing the Wagashi can be ‘Kuromoji’ or ‘Youji.’ Youji’ means ‘pick,’ and it is a thin, flat, and tiny stainless steel utensil shaped like a miniature knife used to slice and pick the pieces of Wagashi. Kuromoji’ has a similar shape and purpose to ‘Youji,’ but it is wood.
  • Kaishi (napkin/paper dish): Kaishi is a small washi paper with elegant translucent embossments of different designs such as pines, bamboos, or plums. These papers are carried both by the guest and the tea server. It is used as a napkin to wipe the cutlery and placed below the Wagashi when served on the lacquer saucer.
  • Waiting for the cue: When the Wagashi is placed in front of you, it might be challenging to hold yourself back from taking a bite of it right away. However, it is a mandatory part of the etiquette of Wagashi to wait until the tea server says ‘Wagashi wo Douzo,” which means “Please go ahead and enjoy the sweets.”


How Long Does Wagashi Last?


The delicate nature of Wagashi means that most of them are best enjoyed as fresh as possible. However, it might not always be the most practical, for example, when you receive a large amount of Wagashi as a gift. The good news is that some types of Wagashi have an impressively long shelf-life, especially those that are dried or deep-fried.

As we have seen in the earlier section, the primary classification of Wagashi is based on their water content and longevity. Although the longevity of each type of Wagashi can vary widely, the below can be used as a general guide for how long you can keep Wagashi before they go bad.

  • Namagashi (fresh wagashi, >30% moisture content): Approx. 1 to 2 days (E.g., Ohagi, fresh Mochi, Dango)
  • Han-Namagashi (semi perishable, 10 -30% moisture content): 3 days to 1 week. E.g., Monaka
  • Higashi (dry wagashi, <30% moisture content): 3 to 6 months. E.g., Rakugan, Senbei.

Pro-tip: Apart from the above guide above, you can always check the expiration date and storage instructions on the box or packaging of the Wagashi as Japanese products tend to have very elaborate and informative packaging.



Article| 25/02/2022 | Food


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