Wagashi are clad in beautiful colors and appear in shapes unique to Japan—thus they have earned a reputation as “edible art.”
The primary categories of wagashi designs invoke nature in some form: flora such as plum blossom, cherry blossom, chrysanthemum, camellia, pine, peony, fern, kerria and azalea; fauna that include the crane, tortoise, rabbit, plover and whale; natural phenomena such as the moon, sun, mist, rain, snow and even sleet; and landscapes of mountains, rivers, hills and streams. Beyond nature, wagashi may also represent objects in Japanese daily life, such as fans, bamboo screens or tanzaku (thin strips of paper used for writing poetry).
These and other motifs have been beloved by the Japanese since ancient times, and they appear repeatedly in historical poetry and paintings as reminders of the ever-changing seasons, or as images that evoke auspicious meaning. All of them express a distinctively Japanese sense of beauty and response to nature.
The names of certain wagashi carry literary associations. One poetic allusion recreates the glorious blossom of a peony and is called Hana-no-oh, or “sovereign of flowers.” The wagashi known as Tatsuta represents a mountain tinged with autumnal foliage, and is named after a location famed for centuries for its autumn leaves. Both the name and design call to mind references to the Tatsuta region in ancient poetry.
Wagashi designs are generally either realistic or abstract. The most suitable realistic designs for sweets are refined and somewhat simplified. A triangular wooden stick (sankaku-bera) is used to form the lines of flower petals or the veins of leaves, skillfully reproducing patterns from nature; if these are too realistic, however, the sweet may no longer appear appetizing. The best expressions capture the essence of the subject in a vivid or lively way.
Among the models for designs which fulfill such criteria are the paintings of the Rinpa style, particularly as represented by artist Ogata Korin (1658-1716). The clean lines and attractive decorative qualities of the Rinpa style appeal to the modern aesthetic, and have had tremendous influence on the design of Japanese traditional crafts, from lacquerware and ceramics to kimono fabric. This influence also extends to wagashi.
Sweets in realistic shapes are most often made using molds of wood, ceramics or metal. Among the leading types are higashi, molded dried sweets including rakugan dry sweets, formed in elaborate wooden molds. These were once carved in detail by highly skilled craftsmen. Today, most dry sweets have become smaller in size, and are intended for use in the tea ceremony.
Highly realistic examples of “confectionary art” are also made for purely aesthetic purposes, using edible materials to create shapes such as cartwheels festooned with gorgeous peony or wisteria flowers, the forms of eagles and roosters, or even castles.
Abstract wagashi designs are sometimes not immediately recognizable. Such motifs are often expressed using ingredients such as azuki beans or sesame seeds to suggest images of plovers, stars, frost or snow, leaving the observer the pleasure of imagining the meaning behind the design.
Wagashi color combinations can be quite lovely. Kinton, for example, consists of a ball of azuki bean paste to which colorful threads of bean paste (soboro-an) are attached using chopsticks. For jelled yokan sweets, color combinations carry a specific meaning: red and yellow may connote autumn leaves; yellow and green the image of young willow buds in spring; and red and white the auspicious image of plum blossoms.
These color combinations recall the aesthetic of layering kimono in prescribed colors according to the season, worn by courtiers during the Heian period (794-1185). As portrayed in The Tale of Genji and other works of classical literature, seasonal themes played an important role in the apparel of the aristocracy. They amused themselves by giving names associated with seasonal phenomena to certain combinations of inner and outer kimono, as well as to the layers of color visible at the sleeves, collar and hem of these robes which would conjure images of famous poems. In this sense, the designs of wagashi carry on the stylish sensibilities of the ancient court to this day.
Inspired by Wagashi
As wagashi motifs are borne of literature and nature, so they have influenced the arts beyond mere confectionery. Wagashi designs are themselves a popular source of artistic inspiration: some artists press washi (traditional Japanese paper) in wagashi molds to create original artwork; others produce wood carvings recalling the shapes of wagashi, or create accessories prompted by the forms of higashi. This is the timeless aesthetic of wagashi—a sensibility that evokes the fundamental Japanese spirit.
“Kagizen Yoshifusa was established in the mid-Edo period. They have continued making Kyogashi (Kyoto sweets) at the corner of Kyoto’s Hanamachi, the stylish district of Gion. Like the numerous long-established sweet shops in Kyoto, the sweets have been offered to common shoppers, the “Chajin” (tea connoisseur) and temple priests alike, but being situated in Gion, our sweets have been enjoyed widely in sphere of the cultured writers, artists, and patrons, along with the women of the Hanamachi.
The sweets of Kagizen now have not changed its ways from the past. Carefully selected ingredients as its base, they are the hand-works of craftsmen employing the simple recipe handed down through the generations — diligently and with great care. Our priority is placed on our finely honed established taste so that we may continue to please our customers with each passing day.”
Tsuruya Yoshinobu has a history of more than two hundred ten years as the most famous confectionery shop in Kyoto. It also has served as the specialty shop for the ancient Imperial Household and the head masters of tea ceremony in Kyoto since it was established in 1803. Our head store building we would like to introduce to you was built in 1994 according to traditional architectural style of the mercantile houses in Kyoto, with which the streets had once been regularly lined since ages ago. In the building you shall find a nice tea ceremony room and garden on the second floor. Please feel at home and taste our various kinds of confectionery.
Tawaraya Yoshitomi Karasuma
This shop was opened in 1755. Including the most popular choice, Unryu, they offer beautiful Japanese sweets expressing the Japanese four seasons. Ryuho-kan, a Kyoto sweet museum, is next door and displays historical materials and tools related to not only Kyoto sweets but also to all kinds of Japanese sweets. They also try to restore as many things as possible: tools for making sweets, old documents, containers offered to the Imperial family, and the works of Tomejiro Okina who devoted his energy to training the younger Japanese sweet makers. In the tea ceremony room on the first floor, enjoy a bowl of Japanese tea in a casual and relaxing atmosphere.
This shop was established in 1908 amongst traditional o-chaya (the place where customers are entertained by maiko and geiko) buildings in Kyoto’s oldest kagai district (where geiko/maiko live & work), Kamishichiken. Since then, it has been providing Yusoku-gashi (a type of sweet especially made for royal rituals) and sweets for the tea ceremony as well as a variety of other sweets all made with quality ingredients. Among their wide selection, the seasonal Nama-gashi is the most delightful. Delicate colors and shapes are created by skilful artisans and appear almost too beautiful to eat. Their popular items are Natsu Mikan, made of whole Japanese citrus fruit, and Renkon Mochi, a cake made with lotus starch and agar as a solidifier. Oimatsu offers sweets for customers to enjoy the seasonal events and nature.
Toraya, a maker of wagashi (traditional Japanese confections), was founded in the early 16th century in Kyoto where it became a purveyor to the imperial court during the reign of Emperor Goyozei, which was from 1586 to 1611. Toraya established a foothold in Tokyo in 1869, after the national capital was transferred there on the heels of the Meiji Restoration. At present, Toraya has three factories and approximately 80 shops throughout Japan, in addition to a boutique in Paris.
Wagashi and The Art of The Five Senses: https://www.toraya-group.co.jp/english/wagashi/art.html
Types of Wagashi: https://www.toraya-group.co.jp/english/wagashi/types.html
Onchimakishi Kawabata Doki
The Doki family once served a food called Chimaki to the imperial family for about 330 years, from 1536 to around 1868. The origin of their Chimaki dates back to the 15th century, a time after the long civil war period ended in Kyoto and the imperial family had serious financial problems. The first generation owner of Doki started to serve Chimaki to the imperial family in order to help them. It was like a dumpling (the size of a baseball) with cooked red bean paste covers sticky rice cake inside. He brought the Chimaki to the imperial family every morning and meanwhile, their Chimaki became regarded as an essential item in the daily morning court ceremony. The oldest historical record mentioning the name of Kawabata Doki can be found in a local court report document in 1512, which guaranteed the right of the Doki Family to run a business as a rice cake shop. The name of the shop, Doki, is from the name given to the first generation owner after he retired and became a Buddhist priest. It is said that the first Doki learned tea ceremony from Sho-o Takeno along with Rikyu Sen, who is regarded as the founder of tea ceremony. Today, Doki still serves sweets at important tea ceremony parties in Kyoto. The tradition of serving Doki’s sweets to the imperial family as a sacred offering for the deity has transformed into beautiful Chimaki and sweets. Many people recommend Doki’s “Suisen Chimaki” as a Kyoto summer specialty. Dough made with fine kudzu starch and white sugar is wrapped with a bamboo leaf and is steamed to become a sticky dumpling. The simpler the ingredients are, the more their original taste decides the final taste. During the Gion Matsuri Festival in July, their Chimaki are sold at each float that is constructed in the city, however, they are not edible, but are sacred amulets. People hang the Chimaki at the entrance of their houses, as it is believed to obstruct bad fortune from entering. The Chimaki is replaced every year and old ones are brought to Yasaka Jinja Shrine. Doki’s Chimaki, both for eating and as an amulet, is an item that Kyoto people always strive to obtain in summer.
Opening Hours: 9:30 – 5:30
Closed Wednesdays and August
Shojuken opened in 1932 and has served fine Japanese sweets to Kennin-ji Temple and Kodai-ji Temple for many years. An advance order is necessary for their fresh sweets because they want to provide only the best quality items. Every sweet represents seasonal motifs and are preferred as a special gift and as a sweet served in the traditional tea ceremony. One of the sweets, “Okuribi” has a symbol of the Gozan no Okuribi fire ritual on its surface. A thin skin of baked sweet dough wrapped around sweet red bean paste. Simple, yet Kyoto’s seasonal image can be discovered in every individual sweet at Shojuken.
Opening Hours: 10:00 – 6:00
Deamchi Futaba is a small yet very popular Japanese sweet shop founded in 1899. There is always a queue in front of the shop consisting of those customers who come to purchase their signature item, “Myodai Mamemochi (170 yen per piece).” This is a sweet dumpling in which a thin, soft sheet of rice cake wraps around a small ball of sweet and smooth red bean (from Tokachi, Hokkaido) paste containing cooked black beans. The softness of the rice cake, sweetness of red bean paste and slight saltiness of black bean achieves perfect harmony. If you are not a sweet lover, it is worth trying their plain rice cake only with black beans.
Opening Hours: 8:30 – 5:30
The first owner trained at Toraya before moving on to start Syogetsu in 1916. The shop moved to its current location in 1988, specializing in making pre-ordered wagashi.
Opening Hours: 9:00 – 5:00