Not Too Sweet: Japanese Wagashi

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Why dismissing the ancient confection because of its taste would be a mistake

Wagashi takes us by surprise. To call the traditional Japanese confection a sweet draws parallels to our Western cakes and cream-filled pastries, but wagashi, made entirely of plant-based ingredients—notably bean paste and dense starches—presents muted flavors that starkly contrast with our intensely sugar-laden treats. So it’s easy to dismiss wagashi. But to do so misses its broader cultural importance: The tea ceremony simply wouldn’t be what it is without the accompaniment of this edible artwork.

Wagashi’s origins go as far back as 300 B.C., when fruits and nuts sweetened Japan’s diet of mostly rice. It evolved into a confection through Asian and Western influences: Japanese missionaries returned home with Chinese cakes during the Tang dynasty in the 8th century, European trade routes introduced sugar in the 16th century, and Okinawa began cultivating sugarcane in the 17th. Meanwhile, the tea ceremony—dating to the 16th century—was coming into its own, gaining in popularity and significance, and serving satisfying sweets had become a sign of good hospitality. Wagashi styles and techniques flourished.

On the surface, the role of wagashi seems practical: Guests are offered a piece to coat the palate with mild sweetness before consuming the slightly bitter matcha. But in the ceremonial context of tea, where every detail takes on symbolic weight, wagashi has been elevated. In this case each must appeal to our five senses.

The eyes note the color and design; maybe it’s the shape of a cherry blossom. Seasonal ingredients offer subtle fragrances. The taste can’t be too plain or too sweet. The textures of smooth bean paste or melt-in-the-mouth starches delight the tongue. And to the ear, their names (each piece is given a title—of a season, a poem, a story) evoke the anticipation of a time of year, calling to mind a summer stream or autumn leaves falling.

Since the 17th century the base ingredients have changed little, and each one stands for something. The red color of adzuki bean paste, for instance, is said to ward off misfortune and illness.

So when presented with the delicacy alongside a ceramic bowl of matcha, take it in, reflect on its past. Wagashi has become an embodiment of Japanese social ritual—imbued with the history and culture of its people. 

Read our interview with wagashi maker and tea expert Toru Ota »