Wagashi is not just a dessert, it’s an art form

These traditional Japanese sweets are taking a turn for modernity with new creative interpretations

2018-04-05 15:46:52 2018-05-29 00:33:27

“Now in Japan, chrysanthemums are in season,” said Hiromori Uchida, the chef from wagashi (traditional Japanese sweets) purveyor Ganyuudou as he carefully layered different coloured bean pastes atop each other. He shaped the layers of sweet bean paste into a ball, then, using a sharp and delicate pair of Japanese scissors, snipped away at the ball until it turned into the shape of a beautiful chrysanthemum flower. Wagashi is not just dessert, it is a form of art as demonstrated by the 46-year-old Uchida who was in town as part of the Yokan Collection exhibition held at the National Museum of Singapore.

Enjoying Obusedo’s chestnut yokan in the serenity of Obuse town, Nagano Prefecture.
Enjoying Obusedo’s chestnut yokan in the serenity of Obuse town, Nagano Prefecture.

After its Parisian premiere in 2016, the Yokan Collection debuted in Singapore over the weekend of 28 October 2017, bringing together more than 15 vendors of renowned wagashi makers and producers from different regions of Japan to showcase the craft behind wagashi-making. Through a curated exhibition, guests not only had the opportunity to learn about yokan’s long history and significance in Japanese culture, they also got to sample them.

Yokan is among the oldest style of wagashi. The jellied confection of red or white beans, sugar, and agar, usually comes in blocks of beautiful patterns and designs, and are eaten in bite-sized slices. Yokan was originally a Chinese dish made using gelatin derived from boiling mutton broth. When it was introduced to Japan, vegetarian monks used wheat flour and azuki red beans to replace the meat, and steamed the yokan into shape. This original yokan is called mushi yokan, or steamed yokan. But when agar was discovered in the mid-17th to 18th century, neri yokan (or simply yokan in general) became the norm. There is also mizu yokan, which contains higher water content and is less heavy, hence it is usually enjoyed during summer.

Toraya’s mizu yokan
Toraya’s mizu yokan


Toraya’s 18th generation wagashi maker, Mitsuharu Kurokawa, gives us an overview of wagashi. Wagashi directly translates as “Japanese sweets”. Despite being rooted in long history and traditions, “wagashi” is a relatively new word, as all sweets were called “Kashi (菓子, Chinese characters for fruit)” and referred to fruits and nuts in ancient Japan. “Our ancestors ate acorns, but it was very bitter, so they needed to grind it, and soak it in the water to remove the bitterness. Using this, they started making small balls of snacks, which is the origin of dango (Japanese dumplings) and mochi, the oldest human-made wagashi,” explains Kurokawa.

After sugar became more common due to trade and the introduction of tea, and with the subsequent rise of tea ceremony culture, wagashi creation took off during the Edo period in Japan. Today, it is regarded as an art form, its delicate appearance an emblematic nod to Japan’s refined and precise culinary culture. Spanning forms such as dango and mochi, dumplings and rice cakes made of glutinous rice; manjyu, steamed cakes of thick azuki red bean paste; Uiro, steamed cake made of rice flour and sugar; and of course yokan, wagashi typically requires a lot of work and is unique to the region and the season it’s made in.

Three types of neri yokan from Toraya: Yoru no ume (left)
Three types of neri yokan from Toraya: Yoru no ume (left)

One of the oldest wagashi shops, Toraya, was founded in the early 16th century in Kyoto where it became a purveyor to the imperial court during the reign of Emperor Goyozei, from 1586 to 1611, supplying wagashi to royalty and emperors during seasonal festivals and special occasions. Through the years, Toraya has established itself particularly in the production of yokan. Some of their signature yokan, the “Yoru no ume” (Plum blossom at night) was inspired by an old poetry book that dates back to 905 and it remains one of their bestselling items today. While the ancient text did not indicate specific ingredients, Toraya’s interpretation consists of whole red beans so the cross section of the yokan looks like plum blossoms while the dark yokan base reminds one of a starless night sky.

Another signature seasonal wagashi at Toraya is the “Hanabira mochi” (flower petal mochi) where a flat circle of mochi is folded into a semi-circle which envelops a strip of burdock, white bean and miso paste—it looks like a white taco that is pink in the middle. This confectionary was originally crafted for the royal family’s New Year celebrations.


One cannot speak of wagashi without touching on the subject of the Japanese tea ceremony. Sen no Rikyu (千利休), the master of tea ceremony in the 16th century, introduced the idea of “omotenashi” (Japanese hospitality) to guests, where every aspect of the ceremony from tea and snacks to utensils and decorations are specially curated by the hosts. In the spirit of Sen no Rikyu, “jou nama gashi (上生菓子)”, which refers to premium-grade raw sweets, was born.

Wagashi can be classified according to production methods and moisture content (which affects shelf life). Higashi, dried sweets, contain less than 10% in water content; while han nama gashi, semi-raw sweets, contains 10-30% of water. Despite the “raw” in its name, jou nama gashi is typically handcrafted with cooked beans puree; its “raw”-ness comes from it having more than 30% water content. Jou nama gashi is usually soft and delicate, often taking elaborate shapes and colours, and reflecting the seasons. This refined form of wagashi is meant to be appreciated using all five senses—aroma, texture, presentation, and the imagination it evokes. Each jou nama gashi has its own poetic name that is derived from the theme of the wagashi.

Hiromori Uchida, chef of Ganyuudou, demostrating how to make wagashi at The Yokan Collection 2017
Hiromori Uchida, chef
of Ganyuudou, demostrating how to make wagashi at The Yokan Collection 2017

Uchida is the fifth-generation owner of confectionary maker Ganyuudou from Shizuoka. His grandfather’s motto is “asanama gashi”, which meant that the confectionary had to be freshly made every morning and consumed within the day to appreciate its “mochi” texture, such as dango or daifuku. Even the more intricate and complicated jou nama gashi followed this rule.

As a renowned wagashi artisan, Uchida explains how the tea culture and wagashi culture goes together: “For special occasion tea ceremonies, wagashi is made to order and according to special themes.” Uchida remembers an occasion when he was tasked to create a Gothic-themed wagashi for a tea ceremony held by a patron whose daughter is a famous artist known for her Gothic style. To showcase her painting depicting a skeleton and black snake twined to its skull, Uchida created a sweet named “Thread of Spider” and used white bean’s paste to create thin threads on the surface of the wagashi.


Wagashi reflects the Japanese’s keen awareness of seasonality. The use of sakura blossoms signal the herald of spring while autumn brings hearty chestnut manjyus (steamed buns). Besides seasonal ingredients, shapes are used to express seasonality.

Wooden handcrafted moulds are used to obtain those shapes. Nowadays, the mould is used for both nama gashi and hi gashi. In ancient times, it was mainly used for hi gashi, such as rakugan (落雁), a dried sugary confectionary made with rice flour, that can be kept for very long and was widely used as offerings in shrines and temples or as gifts. Usually, these moulds are made using hard wood from wild cherry trees. These moulds can be used for about 100 years, and are passed down through several generations of wagashi purveyors.

At the same time, people started expressing terroir through wagashi. One of Chiba prefecture’s famous wagashi purveyors, Yoneya, is known for using local peanuts in their sweets. Their monaka, as well as their manjyu are made with white bean paste, peanut paste, and peanuts cooked in syrup.

Yoneya has 118 years history in making confectionary—brief when you compare them to other shops. Throughout generations, the family house was located right next to the famous Narita temple, which was established in 940. During the 15th and 16th centuries, the principal statue in Yoneya’s private property and the natural water from the property’s well were thought to have miraculous powers. People started to bring back Yoneya’s wagashi as souvenirs and gifts of good luck, as Yoneya’s yokan and monaka (red bean paste sandwiched between two delicate and crispy sweet rice crackers) were made with that same well water. The legacy continues today.

The old scrolls from Toraya detailing the different wagashi shapes.
The old scrolls from Toraya detailing the different wagashi shapes.


To keep up with the times, wagashi culture is rapidly changing. At the Yokan Collection exhibition, we got a glimpse of wagashi showcased in modern, creative ways. Just for the event, Toraya created yokan with Eu Yan Sang’s bird’s nest, coconut oil, and egg white. The result was a layered slice depicting white clouds and swallows flying over the sea. Artisans Suzukake “bar36” from Fukuoka were also present, showcasing the transfer of fruit purées from beakers and flasks to jellied slices in 36 different ways.

Many traditional Japanese wagashi makers now create new interpretations of wagashi with influences from western confectionary, to adapt to the modern palate. Eggs, butter, cream, liqueur, and even chocolates are used in their treats, as well as using Western techniques like baking in the oven.

One of the modern wagashi at Yoneya is inspired by the French ‘Mont Blanc’, a chestnut-based confectionary. Chef Shogo Shibuya from Yoneya explains: “We do it in the Japanese way by mixing white kidney bean paste, egg yolks and whipped egg white, then steaming it. This wagashi cake base is topped with chestnut paste, made with local chestnut purée and white bean paste. This cake does not use any dairy products, and contains less fat compared to the western version”.

Meanwhile, change abounds in the 500-year-old Toraya. Leading the way in evolving the wagashi culture is 32-year-old Kurokawa Mitsuharu, who joined his family business in 2008 and is currently the managing director. Toraya has three factories and approximately 80 shops throughout Japan. To make the traditional sweet more accessible to the masses, Kurokawa opened a casual line of Toraya cafés in Japan. These modern shops are usually located at busy train stations and offer quick and casual services with disposable cups for takeaways—a far cry from the classic elegance of the original Toraya shops, which offers a more cultured atmosphere.

To spread the wagashi culture globally, Toraya also opened an outlet in Paris in 1980. “Chocolates are widely loved throughout the world, wagashi can be the same,” explains Kurokawa. With the opening of outlets abroad, the company also made a few surprise findings. “One of our signatures is Yokan and it was a hit with the Middle Eastern market because yokan is both vegetarian and halal. Its sticky texture is also similar to dates, that’s why they love it,” shares Kurokawa.

Toraya – D-B117, 9-7-4 Akaasaka, Minato-ku, TOKYO (Tokyo Midtown Galleria B1F)

Ganyuudou – 62 Tenmacho, Naka-ku, Hamamatsu-shi, Shizuoka-ken, 430-0935

Yoneya – 500 Kamicho, Narita-shi Chiba-ken, 286-0032

The SALT Team is dedicated to bring out the best in food journalism, with culinary prose, evocative photo-essays, and inspiring reads from people who work behind the scenes. Our online portal carries the latest on food and drinks in the region, with an injection of a fresh new spirit to food content and an offbeat attitude.