Wagashi: Traditional Japanese Sweets

Japan is an excellent destination for a traveler with a sweet tooth. The variety of sweets available here is overwhelming, with plenty to choose from to satisfy even the most pickiest eater. Kyoto in particular is a great spot to sample the sugary side of Japanese cuisine, with the strong connections to the world of tea calling for only the best sweets to complement the bitterness of the city's famous matcha tea.

Wagashi (和菓子) is a Japanese word that covers a large variety of sweets, confections, and cakes. The most common ones in Kyoto are those seen in the picture above: Namagashi (生菓子), small balls of rice flour filled with sweet azuki bean paste. Within the namagashi family, the level of moisture and stickiness varies, and there are also some that are made with jellies, fruits, and nuts.

From the website of a famous wagashi confectionery shop:

The principle element of wagashi is an, a bean paste which is made of beans and sugar. In particular, azuki beans are a defining ingredient, without which wagashi can hardly be conceived. Its hearty flavor goes without saying, and its reddish color has associations with ancient beliefs that red wards off disaster and disease. The beans are cooked with sugar, then mashed, and finely strained to produce a smooth azuki bean paste called koshi an, or, by leaving some of the solid bits of the beans intact, it becomes a chunky azuki bean paste called tsubu an. These two pastes are the mainstay of wagashi, while other beans, such as the white azuki beans and the white kidney beans, are used to produce a white bean paste called shiro an. These different bean pastes become the basis for the wide variety of wagashi.

The variety of wagashi that you can try in Japan is not only limited by receipes and techniques, but also the seasons. Japanese culture has long celebrated the changing seasons through festivals, art, and food, but perhaps wagashi does it best. Each month, sweetshops offer new designs of wagashi based on the current season. Flowers, birds, fish, fruit, landscapes... all of these elements can be created from carefully shaping the wagashi to fit the season. A few wagashi chefs have even gotten pretty creative and reached out to import some very foreign designs into their seasonal sweets!

Visitors to Kyoto have a great opportunity to try their hand at making wagashi for themselves. KyoTours Japan can arrange for a 70 minute class to be added to your tour that will walk you through the basic techniques of making these little edible artworks. This workshop pairs up well with the Higashiyama Culture Walking Tour, and the Kyoto Highlights Tour works as well, but it can often be added on to other tours as well.

In this wagashi workshop, you will make a variety of four different types of seasonal sweets, from simple creations to more complex designs. It's not exactly difficult, but it can be a challenge to have your wagashi match the ones created by the professional leading the class.

After the class, matcha tea is served and you can taste a few of your own creations. The best part is that you'll make enough wagashi that you'll have some to take back to your hotel for dessert later in the day!

This workshop is suitable for vegetarians and vegans.

(All of the pics below are wagashi made by guests at the workshop)

Why visit this wagashi workshop during your KyoTours Japan tour? Not only is it difficult to make a reservation if you don't speak Japanese, the instruction from the chef is all in Japanese and the class moves quite fast. Luckily, you'll have your KyoTours guide at your side making wagashi with you to offer practical native English instructions and up-close assistance. This is a great opportunity to get a hand on feel for the traditional culinary art of Kyoto in an environment made accessible to foreign visitors thanks to KyoTours Japan.

This is a great activity for families with kids, as it's very hands on and will keep younger guests entertained. However, some patience and focus is required, and we are usually seated with other Japanese visitors, so kids can't get too creative in their designs and need to follow the instructions of the chef.

For everyone else, the wagashi workshop is a great chance to get off your feet during an otherwise busy day of touring Kyoto, especially in summer when an hour indoors with AC is a welcome break from the heat. (works well in winter too when you need to defrost a bit)

Don't be fooled into thinking this is an activity for only cooks and kids. We've hosted couples, friends, partners, families, and everyone in between and they've all had a blast. If you like working with your hands, trying new experiences, and - most importantly - eating delicious sweets, this wagashi workshop is for you!

If you'd like to add a wagashi lesson onto your tour with us, please inform us when discussing your travel plans with us or via the KyoTours Japan contact form.

See you in Kyoto!