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Ultimate Guide to Japanese Sweets

Ultimate Guide to Japanese Sweets

By Emily Talbot | November 30, 2021

Whether you’re a sugarholic in Japan needing your next fix, or a foodie seeking the occasional Japanese treat, read on! This article will explore Japan’s long-standing confectionery culture and the unique sweets it prides itself on, including traditional Japanese sweets (和菓子, wagashi) and Western-inspired sweets “yogashi”. Japanese people are big snackers. I’ll introduce you to the world of Japanese sweets, outlining the most popular snacks and where to find them in Japan and online. 

Japanese sweets are incredibly varied in both form and flavour, just like Western sugary snacks and desserts. However, we look at what makes them unique: their adventurous flavours and century-old traditions. Perhaps you’re after one of the eye-catching sweets displayed in anime, a delectable traditional Japanese tea treat or some matcha flavoured bread? Stick around, and we’ll tell you all you need to know. 

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    wagashi sakura

    Seasonal Japanese sweets

    Many hand-crafted wagashi (traditional Japanese sweets) are seasonal, meaning they are only sold at certain times of the year. Nowadays, you can find the most popular seasonal sweets year-round in bakeries, restaurants and sweet shops. Wagashi are seasonal because they historically relied on in-season ingredients and were given seasonal motifs and flavours to mimic nature. Some say eating a sticky pink sakura mochi (桜餅), literally “cherry blossom bun”, is like stepping right into spring.

    What's to love about Japanese sweets?

    1. Huge variety

    Japanese sweets are known for getting a little adventurous. If you’re worried you might not find something you like, don’t be! Thousands of sweet snacks line confectionery aisles in Japanese supermarkets, ranging from super-sweet candies to mildly-sweet, grain-based buns. Japanese people are known for knowing their sweets’ stuff. They are the largest consumer of chocolate and the largest confectionery market in the Asia Pacific region. 

    2. Tasty and healthy options

    While many yogashi (Western-inspired treats) like matcha-flavoured KitKats have high sugar content, wagashi (traditional Japanese sweets) tend to be lighter and less sugary. They are made from grains such as rice powder buckwheat and red beans and are mostly plant-based (such as namagashi and dango). Japanese people are of the mindset that all is well in moderation. They even have a “confectionery day” dedicated to sweets due to a centuries-old belief that eating sweet snacks on the 16th of June brings health and prosperity.

    3. There’s something for every price range

    Most Japanese sweets in confectionery stores and supermarkets are cheap, costing between ¥10 to ¥100 depending on quality and size. Sweets can cost anything between ¥150 to upwards of ¥300 per piece in wagashi restaurants or artisan bakeries. If you want the best of the best artisanal wagashi and Japanese desserts, you could be paying upwards of ¥1000 per item (8.83USD).

    4. Unique shapes, colours & flavours

    Searching the sweets section can be a sensational experience for some and an overwhelming one for others. Popular Japanese sweets are typically wrapped in bold, bright packaging featuring anime characters and cute (kawaii, かわいい) illustrations. Wagashi such as namagashi (生菓子) are hand-crafted into beautiful shapes and colours that almost look too beautiful to eat. Most popular Japanese sweets come in various flavours, some of which could be considered adventurous or oddly savoury by Western standards. The best way to find what you like is to try! 

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    What are the main types of Japanese sweets, and where can I find them?

    1. Traditional Japanese sweets - Wagashi

    When people talk about traditional Japanese sweets, they are usually referring to wagashi (和菓子). These bite-sized tea treats are mostly made using plant-based ingredients and come in three main types: namagashi (fresh), han namagashi (half-dry) and higashi (dry confections). The many, stunning colours and shapes of wagashi reflect Japanese people’s deep connection to nature and century-old traditions of artistic refinery.

    Seasonal wagashi are often decorated with seasonal motifs, such as sakura in spring and kouyou (leaves turning red in autumn), and come in flavours that evoke feelings of that season. Check out some of the typical seasonal motifs here.

    Because wagashi are traditionally served with tea, you can usually find them where tea is served: in tea houses, temples, restaurants and cafes. If you want to go to a temple but are unsure how to go about it, read our Ultimate Guide to Shrines and Temples. 

    If you’re willing to pay for top quality wagashi, head to one of Tokyo’s wagashi restaurants or specialty sweet shops. Tokyo’s sophisticated Ginza Fugetsudo restaurant offers a sensational array of artisan treats and teas costing between ¥1,500 to ¥1,900. Toraya Confectionery is widely considered the “gold standard” for Japanese wagashi. You can enjoy their luxury Japanese sweets in 80 stores throughout Japan, or head to their website to make an overseas order.

    If convenience concerns you more, cheaper wagashi are widely available in department stores, supermarkets, convenience stores, such as Lawson’s, and food stands. If you’re in Tokyo, head over early to the wildly-popular Gunrindo for a ¥170 mame-daifuku. Akasaka Aono is known for its beautifully wrapped walnut and brown sugar Akasaka mochi, or Shino for its specially boxed seasonal sweets.

    green tea mochi

    2. Popular Japanese sweets- chocolates, lollies and cookies 

    You can count on almost every Japanese food store to have a designated area for snacks, whether convenience store, supermarket, or discount store like Don Quijote

    For a comprehensive list of Japanese supermarkets and convenience stores, click here! In any of these stores, you’ll find plenty of products from leading Japanese confectionery brands, including:

    3. Bakery Japanese sweets, breads, and cakes

    Bread (パン, pan) has only gained popularity since Western influence entered Japan, and rice is still considered Japan’s principal staple. However, artisan bakeries and chain bakery corporations such as Yamazaki Baking that sell in supermarkets and convenience stores are growing in influence, with Japanese households spending similar amounts on rice as they do on bread in recent years.

    As well as pastries and freshly baked bread, Japanese bakeries sell a wonderful assortment of sweet buns and cakes, including mochi (rice cake), and anpan (あんパン), a sweet bread bun with red bean paste inside. They tend to be concentrated in areas of convenience, like shopping malls or train stations.

    japanese store

    Top 10 traditional Japanese sweets

    1. Namagashi

    Namagashi (生菓子) is a raw wagashi made from natural gelatines such as sweetened bean paste or fruit jellies. They mostly taste the same due to their minimal ingredients but come in a wide range of shapes, colours and motifs. Many of their beautiful designs resemble flowers that you can find in Japan.

    • Staff favorite: Nerikiri, (literally “knead and cut”) are usually made from white bean paste and glutinous rice flour, and moulded into the shape of flowers or leaves.
    • Honorable mention: Sakura mochi (桜餅): A sweet-tasting, pink rice cake filled with red bean paste and wrapped in a pickled cherry blossom leaf.

    2. Daifuku

    These small, round mochi (soft rice cakes) are a much-loved wagashi in Japan. Daifuku (大福) is created by crushing boiled or steamed rice and filling the shell with mildly sweet anko (red bean paste). Widely available across Japan, daifuku are loved for their chewy outside and creamy filling. They come in many colours, most commonly pale pinks and greens.

    • Staff favorite: Ichigo Daifuku (いちご大福) is filled with a whole strawberry and anko.  This is a springtime favourite from January to March every year. Sometimes cream is used to replace the anko.
    • Honorable mention: Matcha Daifuku (抹茶大福) is instead filled with smooth matcha cream and served with a sprinkling of matcha powder on top.

    3. Dango

    At first glance, you’d be forgiven for thinking Dango (団子) looks like meat on a stick. This deceiving dumpling-like skewered treat is in fact, made from rice flour and sugar. Dango have been around for millennia, back when they were made by grinding forest nuts into flour. Numerous varieties of dango exist, including kuri, niku, bocchan and kinako. If you’re in Tokyo, check out Kibidango Azuma in Tokyo.

    • Staff favorite: Botchan dango (坊っちゃん団子) features regularly in anime. The treat is easily recognised for its three differently coloured dango. One is pink and coloured by red beans, the second by eggs, and the third by green tea. You’ll find these at hanami!
    • Honorable mention: Goma dango (ごま団子) are sweet and salty sesame seed balls. The sweet anko on the outside is contrasted against the salty, crispy deep-fried exterior.
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    4. Dorayaki

    Sandwiched between two fluffy pancakes made from castella is a delightful red bean filling. Or perhaps you’d prefer a custard, chocolate, matcha or chestnut filling! The sweet’s circular shape earned its name in Tokyo, 1914, because “dora” in Japanese means “gong”. The largest manufacturer of dorayaki (どら焼き) even gave it its own National Day to fall on the 4th of April! Children are known to love this treat. Book in advance to get one of Tokyo’s best dorayaki at Usagiya

    • Staff favorite: The traditional dorayaki. What’s not to love about the traditional dorayaki? Not much, according to us! This treat is sweet on the inside and soft on the outside.
    • Honorable mention: Dorakayi with kuri (chestnuts). The chestnut put into the anko gives an additional delicious kick!

    5. Taiyaki

    Taiyaki (鯛焼き) are world-famous, Japanese fish-shaped cakes made from flour and filled with azuki sweet bean paste. The sweet is typically served warm and gains popularity in the winter season, when you can often find it at Winter festival food stands. The treat is understood to have gained popularity in the mid-1970s after the children’s song ‘Oyoge’ was released, which goes:  “Swim! Taiyaki!” (Taiyaki-kun!) Taiyaki is known for its crisp brown shell, but other fillings have become common, such as chocolate and custard. Head over early to Tokyo’s famous Nezu-no-Taiyaki for the best azuki bean Taiyaki in town!

    • Staff favorite: Taikayi filled with custard cream. This traditional flavour has been a favourite for generations. It’s super sweet and perfect with a bitter Japanese Black Tea.
    • Honorable mention: Taiyaki filled with sweet potato. Rich, super filling and best washed down with tea!

    6. Anmitsu

    Anmitsu (あんみつ/餡蜜) is a light-weight, fruit-based dessert, served in a bowl. A favourite in the warmer months, this cold typically treat combines agar jelly and fruit such as kiwifruit, strawberries and mandarin. Agar jelly is a translucent jelly made from red algae, dissolved with water or fruit juice. Mihashi is famous for its anmitsu and has several branches across Tokyo.

    • Staff favorite: Fruit anmistu. You guessed it- this anmistu is served with delicious, sliced seasonal fruits. The natural sweetness of the fruit perfeclty balances the more neutral It’s the perfect balance of sweet and sour.
    • Honorable mention: Cream anmistu. You guessed it- this anmistu is served with a generous scoop of ice cream. Yum!

    7. Shiruko/Zenzai

    Shiruko (汁粉) is a sweet dessert soup made from boiled and crushed red beans, served in a bowl with mochi. In some regions, you can also find shiruko made from chestnuts and mochi replaced with flour dumplings. Zenzai (善哉/ぜんざい) is similar but thicker. It is common to add toppings such as shaved ice and sweetened condensed milk onto the dessert bowl. If it’s too sweet for your taste, you can have it served with a saltier or sourer side dish, such as umeboshi or shiokombu, to counteract the sweetness. Asakusa has what you’re looking for!

    • Staff favorite: Shiruko with genmai mochi (brown rice cakes) has a slightly nuttier flavour.
    • Honorable mention: Shiruko served with umeboshi (pickled fruits) is a sourer alternative.
    taiyaki-kun azuki wagashi

    8. Yōkan

    On a hot summer’s day, a cool bar of yōkan (羊羹) goes down a treat! Yōkan are cut into semi-translucent rectangular blocks made from red bean paste. If you’d prefer a milkier and milder option, why not try the yōkan, made from white kidney bean paste (しろあん, 白餡, shiro an). Check out the famous Funawa Cafe in Asakuna for a taste. 

    • Staff favorite: We like the thicker and heavier neri yōkan. Neri yokan is characterized by a slightly thicker and heavier consistency.
    • Honorable mention: Mizu (water) yōkan is more watery and is best eaten chilled. Great for hot summer days!

    9. Monaka

    Monaka (最中) consists of two mochi wafers and a creamy azuki bean jam filling. If you’re looking for a crispy and not-too-sweet option, the original Monaka might be for you! Today, popular adaptations of this sweet sandwich substitute the bean filling for dairy-based alternatives like ice cream, whipped cream and cream cheese. More adventurous variations include the  “prosperity monaka”, shaped like golden coins and seasoned with brown sugar for prosperity. If you’re in Tokyo, call Kuuya to order their famous Monaka in advance. The 50+-year-old business is so popular it won’t have any left after midday! You can also find Monaka in the freezer aisle of every convenience store. 

    • Staff favorite: Monaka ice creams. A widely available and filling favorite, this treat is the way to go to quickly satisfy a craving.

    10. Amanattō

    Amanattō (甘納豆) is a round bun made of azuki and coated with a sprinkling of white sugar. The creator of this Tokyo-born treat, Hosoda Yasubei continues to operate today. Check out Eitaro to taste this treat at its finest. 

    • Staff favorite: Red bean amanattō - for those of you with a sweet tooth!
    • Honorable mention: Black bean amanattō - for those who prefer something a little less sweet.

    If you are looking for a foodie friend to try these treats out with, learn how to make Japanese friends easily using our guide.


     

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    Top 10 popular sweets you've seen in anime

    1. Pocky 

    Adored by anime fans and casual consumers alike, Pocky (ポッキー) is recognisable for its thin box displaying the biscuit-like sticks, covered in sweet flavours. First produced in Japan in the 60s, this “cult candy” produced by Glico Canada has taken the global confectionery market by storm. Its name is an onomatopoeia for the ‘crack’ or ‘poki poki’ sound made by Pocky sticks when eaten. Pocky is so synonymous with Japanese culture that it now has its own holiday: November 11th. Want to join in on the celebrations? Gather a group and indulge in some Pocky!

    2. KitKat

    KitKat, transliterated into “kitto katto” (キットカット) in Japan goes beyond the classic Western flavours of mint, chocolate and caramel. Over 300 unique flavours exist, many of which are only available in certain cities, regions and seasons. Kit Kat Matcha Green Tea is right behind the original milk chocolate flavour in terms of popularity. In spring, you can find an azuki bean, powder-based pink, white chocolate KitKat which aims to imitate sakura mochi - a famous sweet eaten during the cherry blossom season. If you’re in Japan, head to your nearest convenience store to see what flavours are on offer or check out Japan’s KitKat stores. You can even make your own KitKat at the Miyatashi Park KitKat Chocolatery!

    3. Crepes

    Japanese crepes, (クレープ, kurēpu) are essentially French crepes with a Japanese twist. The Harajuku district of Tokyo first popularised crepes as casual street food in the 1970s. Now, crepe stands are almost as common as vending machines - they’re everywhere. They can also be bought premade from convenience stores.

    The aesthetically pleasing dessert is rolled into a cone-like shape and served with plenty of whipped cream, cut fruits and sweet sauce. Some of the popular creperies of Harajuku serve more than a hundred variations of filling and flavour! Head to the iconic dine-in or delivery Marion Crepes in Harajuku. Here, crepes cost between ¥600 and ¥800 but elsewhere can be as little as ¥300. 


    mochi wagashi japanese sweet

    4. Castella

    This Portuguese-inspired cake is a form of yogashi developed in Japan, based on the “Naban confectionery”. Castella (カステラ, kasutera) is made from a batter that uses Mizuame sugar syrup and is baked to create a long rectangular cake rich and moist to the taste. Castella can be widely found in bakeries, supermarkets, and sweet stores throughout Japan.

    5. Fruits Sando

    Fruits sando (フルーツサンド) is as it sounds - a Japanese sandwich filled with fresh seasonal fruits such as kiwifruit, mandarin and strawberries. Between two fluffy layers of milk bread (shokupan) you have not only the fruit but also a generous helping of whipped cream. This popular dessert is commonly found in cafes, convenience stores and bakeries and eaten as an on-the-go snack.

    6. Custard puffs 

    シュークリーム or Japanese Custard puffs, also simply known as “Shuu”, are baked choux pastries with sugary, crisp and crunchy toppings stuffed with whipped cream and custard. These, too, are widely available in pastry shops and cafes. If you are looking for something special, head to Shiro-Hige’s Cream Puff Factory. The shop sells adorable cream puffs and cookies in the shape of the much-loved anime character Totoro.

    7. Shaved ice

    Shaved ice (かき氷, kakigori) is one of Japan’s most popular refreshing summer treats, often eaten by itself or as part of a fruit parfait. The sweet syrup and different toppings that cover the ice make it an irresistible choice on a hot summer’s day. Most cost around ¥1000 and come in quite large serving sizes that are perfect for sharing.

    cake sweets

    8. Pon de Ring donuts

    Pon de Ring donuts are a signature recipe of Japan’s largest donut chain, Mister Donut. These mochi donuts are typically made from a short-grain rice flour called mochiko flour, sugar, milk and baking powder. With 1,300 stores throughout Japan, you won’t have to look far to find one of these iconic, bubbly treats.

    9. Melon Pan

    Melon Pan doesn’t taste like melon, it looks like one! This sweet bun is made from rich dough that turns fluffy when cooked. The real appeal is its textural contrast- the crunch of the crispy cookie dough that covers it, and the delicate, melt-in-your-mouth inside. Find one at Akesuka-Kagetudo, Tokyo.

    10. Mont Blanc

    This traditionally French dessert constitutes a shortcake pastry base topped with tall vermicelli-like layers of creamy chestnut paste. Either on top of or buried within the mountain of paste, you’ll usually find a single chestnut. Seasonal spinoffs of the dessert can be found across Japan with the paste coming in greens, pinks and oranges to match the time of year. Head to Tokyo's Mont Blanc Style to try the treat at itst highest quality.

    BONUS: Japanese Strawberry Shortcake 

    Japanese Strawberry Shortcake is a staple for birthdays and Christmases. Its thick, buttery layers of sponge cake are stuck together with whipped cream and topped with fresh strawberries. 

    woman online shopping

    Where can I buy Japanese sweets and snacks online?

    1. Rakuten 

    Rakuten is one of Japan’s largest online retailers and offers a wide range of Japanese sweets. If you’re in Japan, you can do your grocery, clothes and necessities shopping all on this site, and grab your snacks while you’re at it! You can order them individually or in bulk, and filter your search to find what you want faster.

    2. Amazon

    Through Amazon, you can order a massive range of Japanese cookies, chocolates and chewy lollies to your door, anywhere in the world. You can even buy some of the most bizarre treats, as well as DIY kits great for kids and some family fun!

    3. Japanese Candy Store

    For anybody looking to get their sweet fix outside of Japan, Japanese Candy Store is any Japanese sweet lover’s heaven. Browse a huge range of sweets and get them delivered from Tokyo to your door! Payment is in USD and shipping over $40USD is free. Once you’ve created your account you can receive 10% off your first order. 

    4.  Bokksu 

    Bokksu is the only Japanese company that sells snack and tea subscription boxes internationally. The company sources its products from small, long-running family businesses, and is known for its beautiful boxing and authentic storytelling. Bokksu subscribers receive a monthly ‘treats box’ delivered right to their door. Since Covid-19, Bokksu has resumed shipping to most Western countries. Some other competitors include Japan Candy Box, Tokyo Treat and Snakku.

    5. Japan Centre

    Due to Covid-19, Japan Centre has currently paused international shipping. However, Japan Centre is a UK-based Japanese confectionery site offering all kinds of Japanese sweets, from fresh Japanese bread to your favourite Pocky sticks, KitKat bars and candy kits.

    red funny face children

    BONUS: Top 5 strange Japanese sweets

    1. Tokyo Banana

    Worthy of a mention are Tokyo’s banana-shaped, custard cream-filled soft cakes. These trendy treats are a must-try if you’re in Tokyo, and a fun treat for the whole family. Stores get quite creative with designs, printing the bananas with animal prints and flowers.

    2. Every Burger

    If ice cream and fries work, who’s to say cookies and burgers don’t? This burger-shaped chocolate and bourbon cookie has all the details of a burger you would expect- sesame seeds on the bun, and a thin layer of what looks like, but is certainly not, cheese. 

    3. Kracie Rose Collagen candies

    Are you wanting to get that healthy skin glow on? Try Kracie’s Fuwarinka Beauty Rose candies, soft, chewy candies containing Vitamin C, collagen, hyaluronic acid, and Damask rose oil. Expect them to smell like roses, taste like fruit, and be a bit hard on the teeth. 

    Learn more about Japanese Cosmetics here

    4. Giant jellyfish candy

    In an attempt to combat the growing population of Nomura jellyfish, a fish that has become problematic for fisheries, high school students created a candy that uses its boiled and sugared remains. It sure sounds fishy, but websites promise a thick caramel flavour has cleverly masked any hints of the sea. You might be relieved to know the actual product is pretty hard to track down online!

    5. Horse Meat Ice Cream

    Last, but certainly not the least weird, is basahi aisu (raw horse meat ice cream). Perhaps you were hoping it might not be literal chunks of horse meat? Wrong! This product is as it sounds - vanilla ice cream, filled with large pieces of horse meat. It has been described as tasting sweet but “like venison”.


    japanese candy shop sweets

    Japanese sweets vocabulary you should know

    Japanese
    Romaji
    English

    おかし

    okashi

    candy

    スナック

    snakku

    snacks

    スイーツ

    suiitsu

    sweet

    酸っぱい

    suppai

    sour

    苦い

    nigai

    bitter

    わがし

    wagashi

    Japanese sweets (wagashi)

    お茶

    ocha

    tea

    アイス

    ice

    ice cream

    チョコレート

    chokoreeto

    chocolate

    あめ・キャンディー

    ame / kyandii

    candy

    ガム

    gum

    chewing gum

    クッキー/ビスケッ

    kukkii/bisuketto

    cookie/biscuit

    If you are ordering sweets from a cabinet in a sweet store or wagashi at a restaurant,  you can ask “______ wo hitotsu onegai shimasu?” (を一つお願いします) This means “Can I have one of … please? ”

    Perhaps you wanted two or more? Simply ask “_____ wo futatsu onegai shimasu?” (_____を二つお願いします). Can I have two ___ please? 

    Looking to have more fluent conversations? Check out our Ultimate Guide to Japanese Conversation.

    How should I eat Japanese Sweets?

    Occasions & environments 

    Rather than eating sweets after the main course, Japanese people typically eat them as snacks. In today’s busy world, it’s normal to enjoy Japanese sweets at all times of the day. However, it is traditional to eat a snack with a cup of tea or soda between 2pm and 4pm - a period called oyatsu (間食) that literally means “in-between snack”. Oyatsu is a time for kids and adults alike to indulge in a delicious treat and get energy for the rest of the day.

    Gift-giving traditions

    Unlike the Western Valentine’s Day expectation that men must shower their lovers with gifts, Japanese women are expected to gift chocolate to their male colleagues,  “obligation chocolate” (義理 チョコ, giri choco) or honmei choco (true feelings chocolate) to their partners. Check out our Ultimate Guide to Celebrating Valentine’s Day in Japan here.

    The following month on White Day, it is customary for men to reciprocate. Women are pushing to reverse this tradition by encouraging what is known as gyaku choco (reverse chocolate). Nonetheless, around thirty percent of women still give chocolates to their partners on Valentine’s Day. 

    On birthdays, Japanese people often prioritise the sharing of food over the giving of gifts. It is common for friends to take the birthday person to a dinner that includes dessert or a birthday cake. The birthday cake of choice is more often than not a Japanese shortcake. Mont Blanc is commonly eaten to celebrate, and doubles as Christmas cake!

    Are you looking to give food as a souvenir but want clarity over what is culturally appropriate? Click here to read about giving Japanese Omiyage.


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    Final thoughts

    Now that you know what sweet snacks Japan has on offer, where to find them and how to enjoy them, you can get your sugar fix at any time of the day. Whether you’ll be ordering a box of treats to your door or enjoying a taiyaki at a local food stall on a chilly Tokyo day, you now have a greater appreciation for the delicious array of sweets Japan has on offer and the rich cultural history associated with them.

    If you want to know more about Japan, check out our blog homepage for more in-depth guides on Japanese culture. We also have dozens of articles to help you out with your Japanese learning journey and your life here in Japan!  

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