The world of wagashi, traditional Japanese confectionery, can be a little difficult to decipher. Not a few people are rather underwhelmed by their first taste of a typical wagashi such as daifuku, a sticky rice dumpling filled with an, sweet adzuki bean paste. Even if you can get over the strangeness (to Western palates) of beans cooked with a lot of sugar, the sugariness alone may be a bit off-putting. But that sweetness starts to make sense when wagashi is served with matcha Japanese green tea: The bitterness inherent in most green teas is tempered by the soft sweetness of the dessert created to complement it, so yielding a perfect harmony.
Nowhere is the marriage of tea and wagashi as prevalent as in Kyoto, birthplace of sadō, the Japanese tea ceremony. Kyoto, the former Imperial capital, is seeped in the traditions of both tea and wagashi, and several traditional wagashi makers still thrive there.
“You simply cannot talk about the history of wagashi without (talking about) tea, and Buddhism,” says Tomoo Imanishi, the now-retired head of Kagizen Yoshifusa, a venerable Kyoto confectionary institution.
Established in the mid-18th century, Kagizen has been in continuous operation for more than 280 years, run by the same family who own a kanmidokoro, or a “place to enjoy something sweet,” on the edge of the Gion district, renowned for its teahouses and geisha. Imanishi was the 16th head of the company, and his son, the current chief, is the 17th. Since his retirement, Imanishi has been devoting his time to researching the history of his company and that of Kyoto wagashi itself.
While confectionery was always made for the Imperial family and its court, Imanashi says that according to his research, jōgashi, the high-end, refined wagashi, like that served by Kyoto establishments such as Kagizen, have their roots in the traditional tea ceremony.
Even though modern marketing may associate delicate wagashi with the pretty and feminine side of Kyoto — such as the geisha of the Gion district — jōgashi and tea, and even the spirit of the city of Kyoto itself, is essentially patriarchal and rather austere.
The tea ceremony, which came into being in the 16th century, is an offshoot of Buddhist beliefs. Its strict, formalized rules and pared-down aesthetics appealed strongly to males, especially the samurai warrior class. The great 16th-century warlord Nobunaga Oda, who united the country after a long period of civil war, used the tea ceremony as an occasion to talk business and politics.
Nowadays, however, anyone may enjoy the magic combination of slightly bitter tea and sweet wagashi.
There are three main types of jōgashi: namagashi, hannamagashi and higashi. Namagashi (meaning “raw sweets”) are the most delicate; made daily, they must be consumed immediately. Think of them as the equivalent to cream puffs or mousse in French pastry.
Nerikiri, colorful, beautifully formed sweets made from koshian, or smooth bean paste, are a particularly refined form of namagashi, and Kyoto kanmidokoro are regarded as making the best. Nerikiri are usually formed into motifs of the season, such as cherry blossoms in the summer and colorful leaves in the fall. More than any other type of wagashi, they bring home the message that Japanese sweets are to be enjoyed with the eyes as well as the palate.
In the summer months, slippery, transparent ingredients such as kanten (agar-agar) and kuzu, or kudzu, are used to make namagashi that appear as refreshing to the eye as they are to taste. Kanten is usually used to form transparent jellies with a chilled appearance. A quintessential summertime treat is kuzukiri, slippery noodles made of kudzu that are served cold with a sugar-syrup dipping sauce. Enjoying kuzukiri while sipping on a glass of iced matcha is an essential Kyoto summertime experience.
While namagashi must be eaten on the premises or refrigerated, hannamagashi (which means “half-raw sweets”) are a bit more sturdy and can be kept at room temperature for a while — though in the hot, sticky summer you may want to eat them within a day or so after getting them home. Hannamagashi are usually still soft in texture, but are dry enough or have enough sugar content to keep them fresh for longer.
A very sturdy type of hannamagashi is yōkan, which is sweet bean paste formed into a heavy block and then sliced thinly. Yōkan from Toraya, another venerable wagashi institution, is a must-get gift in Japan. (Toraya has its roots in Kyoto and served the Imperial Court for many generations, but after the Meiji Restoration of 1868, it followed the court and moved its headquarters to Tokyo). The hannamagashi that most represents Kyoto is yatsuhashi, a small triangle of cinnamon-scented gyūhi (thinly rolled rice dough) filled with sweet bean paste.
The third type of jōgashi served at a tea ceremony is higashi, or dried sweets. The most typical type of higashi is rakugan, a hard little candy made of powdered sugar and a binder such as rice flour. Rakugan are usually colored and molded into beautiful seasonal shapes. Rakugan on their own just taste of pure sugar — that’s essentially what they are — just like the sugar cubes used for tea in the West. Enjoy a couple of rakugan, ideally ones shaped appropriately for the season, with a cup of tea. Hard sugar candies such as konpeito, small ones which you may know as the brightly colored sweets the Susuwatari (soot creatures) liked in Hayao Miyazaki’s anime “Spirited Away,” are also a type of higashi. In Kyoto, sugar is spun and formed into all kinds of beautifully shapes, such as flowers, butterflies and leaves.
Not included in the three jōgashi categories are mochigashi, such as daifuku, mamemochi and kushidango. These are homey little dumplings made with sticky rice dough (mochi), usually with a sweet filling or coating made from adzuki beans. These were the wagashi of the ordinary folk, made around the country wherever rice and beans were grown and sugar was available. They’re a world apart from the refined world of jōgashi, but still very Japanese of course — and great with some sencha or bancha, everyday green teas. You can enjoy these down-to-earth wagashi in Kyoto too, such as the mamemochi, mochi dumplings with sweet bean paste and salty whole beans, from Demachi Futaba in the Demachi Yanagi residential district, or the original mitarashi dango, small mochi dumplings on a stick with a sweet-savory mitarashi sauce, which have been made by Kamo Mitarashi near the entrance to the Shimokamo Shinto shrine for many generations. Both are must-stops for wagashi fans.
Wagashi fell out of fashion in Japan for some time, especially in the 1980s and ’90s, although they have always remained popular in tradition-steeped Kyoto. In recent years, however, it’s making a bit of a comeback. Stylish wa (Japanese-style) cafes have been cropping up in trendy areas of Tokyo and other parts of the country. Old-fashioned sweets (often called wa-sweets) such as warabi mochi (bracken-starch dumplings with brown-sugar syrup and kinako, toasted ground soy beans) and anmitsu (kanten jelly with fruit, sweet beans and sugar syrup) are regulars on wa cafe menus.
Whether at a wa cafe or a more traditional kanmidokoro, enjoying a Japanese sweet accompanied by green tea is a quintessentially Japanese experience.