Sweets mean different things to different people. Some say such treats are their perfect stress release, while others say they bring back childhood memories — whether the smell of homemade cookies or the chocolate beans they used to pop into their mouths. For artisans and patissiers, though, sweets are what they make a serious career out of, while competing with other professionals to win customers and accolades.

The currently ongoing Zenkoku Kashi Daihakurankai (National Confectionary Exposition), the biggest sweets fair in Japan with a 102-year history, showcases what Japan’s ¥3 trillion confectionery industry has to offer. It boasts 6,000 different items on display and some 150 sugar-craft exhibits, including a gigantic, one-15th scale model of the iconic Itsukushima Shrine in Miyajima, a small island in the Inland Sea.

The 26th installment of the expo, which takes place in Japan every four or five years and in a different town each time, runs through May 12 in Hiroshima. This is the second time the prefecture has hosted the event, and the first time since 1921. Thus at the expo’s Sweets Factory pavilion, the organizer (a consortium of the city and prefectural governments, the prefectural association of sweets makers and local businesses) demonstrates how to make the quintessential Hiroshima snack: momiji manjū.

A maple leaf-shaped sponge cake with mashed sweet bean paste inside, momiji manjū remained a rather obscure local souvenir until the 1980s, when Hiroshima-native comedian Yoshichi Shimada quipped jokes about it on national TV. The manjū’s popularity has skyrocketed since, and it continues to dominate the domestic sweets popularity rankings. The 300 makers in Hiroshima keep on adding new fillings to appeal to the modern palate, so the types of momiji manjū now include chocolate, custard cream and even cheese.

“The basic recipe hasn’t changed: We use flour, eggs, sugar and sometimes glucose syrup (for the sponge cake),” says Tomoyuki Aino from Yamadaya, who demonstrated the company’s manjū-making technique at the expo before serving them hot to visitors. “But we are always researching new ideas.”

Not only that, Hiroshima confectionery makers have banded together to release 13 new sweets for this expo — all featuring lemon. The prefecture produces more lemons than anywhere else in Japan, with a 60 percent share of the national output. Young and aspiring dessert chefs studying at confectionery schools in Hiroshima have played a big part in the collaborative project, coming up with the basic recipes for the sweets.

Shiho Kojima, a 20-year-old graduate of the Hiroshima Suishin Professional Training College of Cooking & Confectionery, says she found a big challenge in mixing the bitter taste of lemon with traditional wagashi (Japanese sweets) such as daifuku (pounded rice cake with a sweet filling). Her lemon daifuku, on sale at the expo, is definitely worth a try, as it has succeeded in softening the lemon’s sourness with whipped cream, while the glutinous rice cake surrounding the cream is deliciously soft.

Of course, the expo is not just about Hiroshima, and visitors can sample and compare sweets from all 47 prefectures (though not all 6,000 sweets are available for testing). Walking through the Across Japan Confectionery Tour pavilion, which is divided into six regional zones and then into prefecture-by-prefecture booths, gives the visitor a sense of regional candy cultures.

At the Nagasaki Prefecture booth, for example, identical-looking squares of castella — a sponge cake made of sugar, flour, eggs and starch syrup — baked by different confectionery makers in the prefecture are in glass cases and displayed like museum exhibits. Now a Nagasaki specialty, castella was originally brought to Japan by Portuguese merchants in the 16th century.

At the Fukuoka booth, meanwhile, Masahiko Irie, president of the 76-year-old local confectioner Irie Seika, explained that many of Fukuoka’s sweets have roots in the region’s heavy industries from the early 20th century. “Factory workers and miners in the prefecture craved sweets as they needed relief (from hard labor),” Irie said. “Our candies used to be enormously popular among laborers because they could keep them in their mouths while they worked.”

History aside, if you are simply looking for fun and a bunch of freebies, a visit to the Confectionery Dreamland offers an almost amusement park-style experience. There you can find the booths of six major snack companies, including Calbee, Ezaki Glico and Meiji, where visitors can participate in quiz shows and games. Whether or not you answer correctly, attendants happily hand out mini packets of sweets and snacks.

Personally, after a dizzying tour of the massive number of exhibits on the opening weekend, I enjoyed a moment of tranquility in the outdoor park area, where a tea ceremony demonstration was held throughout the day. For ¥600 visitors get a set of wagashi and excellent matcha (powdered green tea) served by kimono-clad men and women from one of three tea ceremony groups taking part.

As the expo aims to draw a total of 800,000 attendees over 24 days, some congestion, especially on weekends and during the Golden Week holidays, can’t be avoided. But the allure of sampling sweets of all kinds, meeting top-notch dessert chefs and gawking at artworks made entirely of sugary food before topping it all off with a cup of matcha might be too tempting for the sweet-toothed gourmet to pass up.

The expo’s craziest candy

Some of the stranger sweets at the 26th National Confectionary Exposition:

Fish crackers: Tanaka-ya from Toyama Prefecture offers Genge Senbei, a rice cracker that uses a paste of deep-sea eelpout fish. www.tanakaya123.com

Soy sauce roll: The Shokado confectionery store in Handa, Aichi Prefecture, makes a roll cake using tamari, a type of high-end soy sauce known for its sweet taste. www.gld.mmtr.or.jp/~shokado

Pearl powder Madeleine: Sweet shop Blanca makes sponge cakes with edible calcium powder made of pearl shells from Ise, Mie Prefecture. www.blanca.co.jp

Crispy sardine pies: Shunkado in Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture, is famous for its sugar-coated eel pies, nicknamed “a night confection.” Now it markets shirasu (sardine) pies, available in both sweet and salty versions, as a “daytime confection.” www.shunkado.co.jp

Tea shortbread: While Kyoto is known for a range of matcha sweets, Wako recommends its polvorones (soft, crumbly cookies originally from Spain) containing hojicha, a roasted green tea with a toasty flavor. www.okashi-wakou.co.jp

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.