The image conjured up by wagashi, Japan’s traditional form of confectionery, is of a luxury that goes back centuries — a decorative indulgence for aristocrats sitting down to contemplate life and beauty during a tea ceremony.
According to the Tokyo Wagashi Association, however, the first wagashi was likely a simple mochi dumpling. It was during the Edo Period (1603-1868), when conflict gradually gave way to more peaceful pursuits, that the sophisticated sweets gained their reputations. With refined sugar imports and new innovations, the culinary form continued to evolve during the Meiji Era (1868-1912).
Today, there are many types of wagashi — baked, steamed, pan grilled, jellied, dried — and variations, from simple mochi balls and manju buns to decorative nerikiri bean-paste concoctions and artistic higashi dry sweets.
Given the range, it’s tough to single out just five wagashi stores in Tokyo. The selection below is not only based on the quality of each shop’s confections, but also their reputations, uniqueness and beauty. All are also available to take out or order online.
One of the oldest purveyors of wagashi, Toraya is also the most internationally famous, selling its confectionery overseas and operating a boutique in Paris since 1980. Established in Kyoto and serving the imperial court during the early 16th century, it built a flagship in Tokyo after the Meiji Restoration of 1868. The main store now stands in Akasaka and all its Tokyo outlets are strikingly designed with a minimalist aesthetic that showcases an impressive lineup of wagashi. Of note is the Tokyo Midtown store, which reserves half its space to free exhibitions about Japanese sweets and related topics.
One of Toraya’s most popular products is its signature traditional yōkan — blocks of dark gelled sweet bean paste wrapped in bamboo leaves — but it’s the store’s wide range of exquisite and colorful confections that really sets it apart. Yōkan come in different hues and flavors, often with patterned and pictorial designs, while the nerikiri are like tiny complex artworks. Other sweets, including monaka (bean paste wrapped in rice wafers) and patterned pastel wasanbon sugar higashi, are also available, as are some special dishes served only in the Toraya tea rooms.
Check online for seasonal offerings available for take out, with upcoming treats including sakura mochi (bean paste in pink mochi enclosed in a pickled cherry leaf), pink and green white-bean manju and a chrysanthemum design nerikiri.
When designer Shinichiro Ogata first opened Higashiya in Nakameguro in 2000, the minimalist but warm space of dark woods and glass cabinets was an innovation of contemporary design combined with traditional wagashi and Japanese tea. It has since moved and split into three outlets — Higashiya Ginza, Higashiya Man in Minami Aoyama and Higashiya Man Marunouchi. Each offers a slightly different experience while maintaining the same chic aesthetic.
The wagashi — spherical manju; long, skinny monaka bars; smooth gleaming slices of yōkan and more in muted natural colors — are a perfect match to the interiors. The Hitokuchigashi collection of nine kinds of manju, each a surprisingly complex flavor bomb, is a melange of unusual ingredients. For subtle sweetness, try the Torinoko, dense honey wrapped in ginger-infused white bean paste, or for a hint of savory, the Rokocha, brandy jelly coated in white bean and chestnut paste. Twice a month, seasonal ingredients are also used for a total of 24 other manju to try throughout the year.
Dining in the Higashiya Ginza or Higashiya Man Marunouchi tea salons involves carefully curated handcrafted Japanese tableware, so not surprisingly, most take-out items come in beautifully designed cardboard or traditional paulownia boxes. The Higashiya Man stores, which specialize in steamed manju buns, also offer other sweets from the range. For the full experience, though, Higashiya Ginza’s larger tea salon is the place to go.
The Ginza Kikunoya flagship may be tucked away on the basement floor of the Core Building in Ginza, but it’s well worth a visit. There’s no dining option, but the tins and jars of fukiyose, the store’s signature “jewel box” mix of over 30 types of petite dry sweets, are a sight to behold.
When Ginza Kikunoya was established in 1890, it was housed next to Tokyo’s Kabukiza theater and quickly became known for its kabuki senbei (rice crackers). During the Taisho Era (1912-26), it introduced its fukiyose, which has since become one of its most popular products. There are other offerings, such as manju and arrowroot kuzumochi, but the round Kotofugu or square Tokusen-kan Japan tins of fukiyose make for the most impressive gifts. Both feature dainty higashi in the shapes of Mount Fuji, cherry and plum blossoms, chrysanthemums and pine trees — all artfully arranged on a bed of tiny cookies, sugar-coated beans, gem-colored konpeito hard candy and other treats.
These wagashi are inspired by Edo Period confections, with some of the cookies featuring interesting flavors, such as seaweed and red shiso (perilla) leaf.
Tsunashi makes just one kind of wagashi: monaka. What’s more, this tiny shop in Ebisu is only open from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. on Fridays (6:30-8 p.m. during the current state of emergency). Yet it has garnered a dedicated following who show up regularly to buy its little square wafer-encased dollops of sweet paste.
Made on site and only available in-store, Tsunashi’s monaka uses mineral-rich black sugar from Okinawa, large red Noto Dainagon azuki beans and black sesame seeds. It’s all about flavor and texture. There are two types — brown wafers with dark bean filling and grey wafers with black sesame bean paste — and both come with unique flavorsome details. The dark bean paste is chunky and coated in a layer of crispy crystalized sugar, while the grey wafers of the sesame version contain bamboo charcoal for an unusual, smoky flavor. Debossed with Japanese motifs and packed in a checkerboard pattern in boxes, they are also stylishly modern.
Confectioners Motohiro Inaba and Rio Asano established Wagashi Asobi, which means “playing with wagashi,” hoping to help popularize traditional Japanese sweets with younger generations. Their concoctions also reference historical influences from the West, gently reminding us that wagashi is a continually developing art form.
The store is just a few minutes walk from Nagahara Station in Ota Ward and it only sells two types of confectionery, both unusual versions of traditional favorites. Its yōkan, made with beans from Hokkaido and Okinawan sugar, is deliciously packed with walnuts and whole dried fruits, including figs, pre-soaked in rum. A lighter affair is the rakugan higashi, petite leaf-like dried sweets, flavored and naturally colored with fruits and herbs, such as yuzu, strawberry, chamomile and rosemary. These wagashi are made in limited numbers, so it’s best to order online for delivery or pickup at the store.
Mican Club is one of four dessert eateries housed in Urusando Garden, a former traditional residential home in Omotesando. It serves exceptionally pretty wagashi, the most famous being a secret formula warabi (bracken) mochi called Angel Tear — a perfectly formed dome of transparent jelly, decorated with slivers of gold leaf and served with mounds of kinako (roasted soybean powder). Though not quite as photogenic, Mican Club’s mitarashi dango (skewered mochi balls) set is also exceptional. If eating in, there is a choice of 11 dipping sauces to choose from, but Mican Club also offers eight kinds of dango for takeout.
Kuriya Kashiya Kurogi’s famed Kengo Kuma-designed cafe on the edge of the University of Tokyo campus is currently closed. Instead, it has opened a new eatery in a renovated home in Yushima, Bunkyo Ward, where diners can still order its silky bracken warabi mochi and fruit-sauce-laden mounds of kakigori (shaved ice). For take-out, only its strawberry filled daifuku (mochi-wrapped sweet bean paste buns) are available. The Kuriya Kashiya Kurogi website is being updated, so check @kuriya_kurogi on both Instagram and Twitter for more information about the Yushima cafe and its outlets in Ginza 6, Ginza and Parco, Shibuya.
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