Photo via tumblr Japanese-wagashi
LADURÉE‘s macarons, Pierre Marcolini‘s chocolate, MAGNOLIA BAKERY‘s cupcakes, Garrett’s popcorns, SunnyHills‘s pineapple cakes from Taiwan and PANCAKE HOUSE from the US,……If you come to Japan, without a hustle of traveling abroad, you literally can taste a wide variety of sweets from all over the world.
Japan also has got its own sweets called Wagashi. The world of sweets in Japan is pretty much crowded and highly competitive. It is true that Wagashi’s future is threatened by the increasing number of foreign sweets, and the number of such Japanese sweets shops may be declined overtime, but it looks that Japanese people selectively enjoy a variety of different kinds of sweets for different purposes and situations without too much confusion.
Wagashi’s history goes back to Edo era in early 17th century. Japanese sweets were originally fruits and nuts, but after China began trading sugar with Japan, it became a common seasoning by the beginning of the 16th century. Then when tea drinking had spread to all levels of society in Japan, the current form of Wagashi was created and it was often served with tea.
For Wagashi creation, a year is broken down to 24 seasons (２４節気) and a new series of sweets is released every 2 weeks, which somewhat represents the season’s characteristics. Today, February 4 is called ‘Risshun (立春)’, meaning a start of Spring.
In this season, ‘Ume blossom‘ is typically used as a motif of Wagashi.
Photo via Saneido (三英堂）
Wagashi is named out of ‘Waka (和歌)’, which is a Japanese poem with a 31‐syllable, and often uses a motif typical from a season and nature and a theme such as separation, encounter, travel, friendship and affection. A piece of Wagashi expresses the season and story described in ‘Waka’.
It is said that Wagashi should be enjoyed by fully utilizing 5 senses; sight, touch, smell, sound and taste.
Photo via Itoh Kyuemon
When one sees Wagashi, one firstly get a visual impression. It could be an Indication of a season from the motif used or a delicious taste evoked by the shape.
It could be the softness you feel on your finger when you pick up a piece of Wagashi or when you cut it by a stick. It could be the texture you feel in your month when you hold it or when it is melting in your month.
You smell ingredients used for Wagashi such as rise or azuki bean paste. Or it could be a smell of a leaf wrapping Wagashi. The smell may have a certain indication of the season used as a motif.
A sense of hearing. One may wonder how a sound is related to sweets, but the sound of Wagashi’s name selected from Waka and its aurally impression is very important element for enjoying Japanese sweets. Wagashi patissier tries to hold the impression in a piece of Wagashi.
Needless to say, the taste is one of the most important senses to enjoy sweets.
I hope one day that the delicacy of Wagashi will be widely recognized and get popular outside Japan as much as the popularity of foreign sweets mentioned at the opening. I leave some directory of Wagashi shops available in major cities below:
‘Minamoto Kitchoan’ (http://www.kitchoan.com) available in London, New York, Los Angeles, Bangkok, Taipei, Hong Kong, Singapore.
‘Kitaya Wagashi’ (http://www.senjukitaya.com/index.html) available in London
‘Toraya’ (http://www.toraya-group.co.jp/english/shops/index.html) available in Paris and Illinois in the US.
‘Iroha’ (http://www.iroha-india.com) in India – not authentic, but offer typical modern Japanese sweets.