Traditional Japanese sweets are popular amongst both locals and tourists in Japan. That's because they not only taste great, but many of these confectionaries also look too good to eat!
Yes, the land of the rising sun has many exquisite treats. And we're not talking about just hard candy. Mochi, for instance, is soft and chewy. These snacks are also known as wagashi in Japanese.
Since we frequently travel to Japan, we love sharing our favourite traditional wagashi with our friends and family. We always buy them as a light snack for teatime or look out for Japanese snack boxes that have them inside.
With all this snacking, we're probably a bit of a wagashi enthusiast. We're here to spread the joy because let's admit it, tasty snacks just make everyone's day a bit better.
While you might be able to find some of these traditional Japanese sweets in your local grocery store outside of Japan, we've found out where you can also get them online.
So, whether you're travelling to Japan and want to know what classic Japanese sweets to buy or want to sample these delicious goodies without flying overseas, our handy guide is here to help.
Our Favourite Traditional Japanese Sweets
Out of all the wagashi, we liked mochi, yokan and hiyoko the best. Soft chewy mochi is a typical Japanese confection, and it's easy to find almost anywhere. Therefore, it's our favourite because it tastes good and we can always buy it when we crave it!
Yokan is a vegan dessert. This is our go-to snack when we need something light and refreshing. We recommend keeping yokan in your fridge and slicing pieces whenever you need to serve a low-calorie snack.
Our third favourite traditional Japanese sweet is Hiyoko. While it's hard to find this snack outside of Japan, we're stocking up on boxes of it when we're in the country. It's so adorable, and its cute origin story makes them a great gift for family and friends.
Traditional mochi is a starchy snack made of plain, glutinous rice cake. When you try it in Japan, it has various fillings. However, when the rice cake has stuffings, the Japanese call it daifuku. Some common fillings are red bean and matcha paste, but you'll find innovative fillings such as boba tea included.
On the outside, these rice cakes taste and look like plain marshmallows with a light coating. The thin mochi dough has a hint of sweetness and a subtle flavour. If there's filling inside, you'll taste its sweetness. We love mochi for its soft yet slightly sticky texture. When you sink your teeth into it, it doesn't stick to your gum. The stickiness enhances the mild sweetness of the glutinous rice.
We think that mochi is an absolute must-try. Besides, the Japanese also regard it as a symbolic food. Japanese people often use these traditional Japanese sweets to celebrate occasions such as the Japanese New Year.
Additionally, Japanese people often associate mochi with good health and fortune. Therefore, if you purchase a Japanese treat box, you will find mochi among various other nibbles.
Boba Milk Tea Mochi
Dorayaki (Baked Japanese Sweets)
Dorayaki is a palm-sized traditional Japanese sweet that has red bean paste slathered in between two layers of pancakes. You might see that it looks like breakfast pancakes, but it's a lot denser than that.
When you bite into the pancakes, it's usually sweet and soft, yet firm. Inside, the red bean paste that spills out has an earthy flavour which is an excellent contrast to the sugared pancakes.
We enjoy Dorayaki because it's less filling than breakfast pancakes, but its size makes it perfect for a small snack after lunch. Besides, the balance of sweet and savoury makes it ideal when you cannot choose between the two.
We recommend that you try dorayaki when in Japan. It's a light, sweet snack on the go when you need an energy boost while busy touring around!
Additionally, a fun fact is that dorayaki has been featured in a famous manga series. If you're a manga fan, you'll know about the famous manga series about an intelligent robot cat, Doraemon.
Doraemon loves this snack and cannot resist it, resulting in humorous situations when his master, the clueless but lovable Nobita, has to rescue him. So eat this and visit Doraemon Times Square in Tokyo to experience the manga firsthand.
Dango is a slightly sweet rice dumpling made from uruchi (non-sticky) rice flour and glutinous rice flour. This dumpling is colourless, but various flavours, such as matcha and sakura, are added to the dough ball to make it colourful.
In Japan, you'll see three firm Dango balls served together, skewered on a stick and served. The taste of Dango is earthy with hints of sweetness. We recommend pairing this traditional Japanese sweet with green tea because its mild flavour is suitable for snack time when you do not want something too overpowering. That's why we like it.
Dango's romantic history is another good reason to try it. In ancient Japan, only elites had this dessert served to them during gatherings. Today, regular folks eat it, and the colour is symbolic of the different seasons. Pink, green and white dango, for instance, represents spring. Furthermore, it's one of the best vegan Japanese snacks you can try!
A raindrop cake is a mochi made from agar-agar. It appears as a smooth wobbly crystal orb, just like a spherical raindrop. But, unfortunately, many people think it looks just like jello! Far from tasting like jello, The cake is refreshing and light, exactly what you might expect if you stuck out your tongue to taste raindrops.
On its own, it has no particular flavour. So, Japanese dessert cafes usually serve it with nutty soybean powder (kinako in Japanese) and kuromitsu, brown sugar and honey syrup. Our genuine reason for liking it? It's a low-calorie snack that fits into a diet plan since it is made of agar, a fibre derived from seaweed.
You must try it in Japan because this exquisite dessert is unique. The original Japanese recipe uses water from the Akaishi Mountains. So if you ordered this dessert in Hokuto City, where the mountain range is located, that clean spring water is what you'll taste.
However, chefs that prepare this traditional Japanese sweet outside of the country use mineral water as a substitute to achieve its iconic refreshing taste. You can also try making it using our raindrop cake recipe!
Raindrop cake kit
Oshiruko is a dessert made of cooked red beans in a soup sweetened with sugar. Inside, you'll also find toasted mochi or dango balls.
Most locals like this warm dessert in cold weather because each nourishing sip is sweet and chewy with red beans. The sticky mochi balls make it feel even more comforting. We like this traditional Japanese sweet because it's relatively easy to cook from scratch. You can have it hot or cold, depending on your preference.
Anko, or red beans, have a fascinating history. Buddhist monks in Japan initially used it to replace meat. So in Japan, you'll often find Anko-based desserts, but the chef might mix them with salt to dilute the sugariness. Therefore, try different Anko desserts like oshiruko. You should be able to buy instant Oshiruko powders from convenience stores or even online on Amazon.
Nerikiri wagashi refers to classic Japanese sweets crafted from white bean paste and sweet glutinous rice flour. You will find these traditional Japanese sweets in different floral shapes and patterns, the most common being a pink sakura flower.
This lovely dessert tastes soft and sweet because of the chewy rice cake and white bean paste. Its consistency is similar to playdough, so you'll see it moulded into various intricate shapes, such as flowers, animals, and scenery. It is a common sweet treat during Japanese tea ceremonies because it is visually appealing and goes well with tea. It's our favourite go-to snack when we crave wagashi, which is also not too sweet.
If you like cute Japanese snacks, then Nerikiri is a must-try dessert. The confectionery is colourful and captivating. When you purchase them in Japan, they are also beautifully wrapped up. This makes Neriki a presentable gift.
For those who attempt making it at home, it's like creating a piece of edible art. You can use standard cookie-cutting kits to make nerikiri, so buy them and practise making them from scratch.
Tokyo Banana is a banana-shaped soft cream-filled cake. The treat was invented in Tokyo in the 1990s, hence the namesake.
If you're wondering if this snack tastes like a banana, the answer is no. It has banana-flavoured cream, but it is so sweet that you cannot really identify any specific fruit taste. There are various versions, such as Tokyo Banana with honey, strawberry and even cheesecake flavours.
Our favourite is by far the original, although if you find limited editions such as a KitKat flavour, you should try it.
This traditional Japanese sweet has an endearing beginning. It first came to be because bananas were expensive and inaccessible to ordinary folks in Japan. Now, it is a popular snack that you can find almost everywhere in the country.
Its Tokyo manufacturer did not intend for it to be a worldwide hit, but it has certainly taken off. Try this special cake when you are in Japan, or order a box for teatime.
Senbei is a type of flat rice cracker made of Japanese rice. These crunchy crackers usually come in various sizes, and you'll often see them served in guesthouses alongside green tea.
These traditional Japanese sweets have different flavours. The most common one is soy sauce-flavoured crackers. The manufacturer makes them by dipping the crackers in soy sauce and then toasting them.
You'll find them crunchy and savoury, although there are sweet senbei crackers too. Naturally, we enjoy eating soy sauce senbei the most, but there are also quirky flavours such as seaweed, cheese, and corn.
Furthermore, what makes senbei different from rice crackers found in other parts of the world is that Japanese flour makes them softer.
People often say that the invention of senbei in Japan was because of a chef who decided to roast leftover dango dumplings. Therefore, you can imagine what senbei tastes like. Whether you order online or buy them from Japan, grab a pack to share with your friends so you can enjoy this addictive snack together.
Soy Sauce Senbei
Monaka is a traditional Japanese sweet with crunchy mochi wafers encasing a creamy filling. You'll usually see them in square shapes, although they might come in various shapes and sizes nowadays.
This wagashi tastes very light and crispy. The wafers are tasteless, but the azuki bean jam makes it sweet. Traditionally, monaka is filled with azuki bean jam. However, nowadays, dessert shops add anything from ice cream to whipped cream, chestnut paste and even cream cheese. The wagashi is so tiny and light that you will probably eat more than one in a single sitting. We certainly know that we cannot stop at one piece!
If you're in Tokyo, stop by the famous Monaka shop Kuuya. It's a 50-year-old business that churns out the best handmade monaka in the city. Or you can always look for other adaptations around the country, such as the 'prosperity monaka', a version shaped like golden coins and seasoned with brown sugar. They also make excellent gifts to bring home.
Yōkan is a traditional Japanese sweet made from red bean paste, agar, and sugar. It is sold in a block and eaten in slices.
The dessert tastes sweet, and the jelly consistency is smooth. You'll see two types in Japan: Mizu and Neri yokan. Mizu yokan has more water and is eaten chilled compared to Neri yokan. We like this dessert because it has a long shelf life, so you can keep it refrigerated and eat it anytime you like without worrying about spoiling.
Yokan is unique to Japan because chefs made the original delicacy from gelatin. However, Buddhist monks used agar to make a vegetarian version of this wagashi. The result is a low-calorie snack that they can enjoy! Because agar is versatile, you'll also see yokan in different forms and colours. Try it in Japan, or order some as a light snack.
Umeboshi in Japanese translates to sour plum. So no surprises, these hard candies are made of sour plums!
If you're the type who likes sour and sweet together, go for umeboshi. It has a hard sour shell that wraps around a sweet interior. So, when we need to stay awake, just pop one in your mouth! It's so intense that it'll wake your senses. For this reason alone, it makes it one of our choices for the best asian candy.
Umeboshi has several health benefits. It reduces diabetes risk and lowers blood pressure, amongst other advantages. But, of course, if you're eating candy, it's best to eat it in moderation to reduce the risk of getting cavities.
Japanese people often use these unique traditional Japanese sweets as a hangover cure or to arouse an appetite before a meal. So try eating them if you need help after a night of partying or have no appetite!
Manju is a steamed bun that has sweet red bean paste filling. We often confuse them with mochi, but Manju is much bigger.
These delicious buns taste sweet and slightly chewy because their exterior combines rice powder and regular flour. Matcha and red beans are some common stuffing ingredients. We usually buy Manju in Japan for breakfast or snacks, which is very affordable. Its price and taste are also probably why the locals like it.
You should try Manju in Japan if you're craving something sweet and filling. Japanese envoys brought the classic treat over from China in the 13th century. The Japanese have since adapted the bun to their liking.
So if you're familiar with the Chinese mantou (a type of steamed bun), try to compare this traditional Japanese sweet and see if you can tell the difference!
Anmitsu is a cold dessert bowl that often includes agar jelly, rice dumplings, sweet Anko paste and various seasonal fruits.
When you eat anmitsu, you'll taste the sweet seaweed jelly (agar), and the sweet syrup poured over it. Sometimes, we can use brown sugar syrup instead. With fruits, the dessert is both sour and sweet.
This is a combination that we cannot get enough of eating. You might also find places in Japan selling Anmitsu with ice cream, and it is also trendy to put mochi inside it.
If you head to Japan and tire of traditional Japanese sweets, do try Anmitsu. It's a refreshing change from cakes or candies. There are many versions. Some shops put boiled red peas, gelatin cubes and rice cakes in it. You can recreate it at home with some agar jelly and fruits.
These chick-shaped traditional Japanese sweets are called Hiyoko. The wagashi resembles a tiny chick, so you can't miss it if you're in Japan. They are essentially a Manju cake with red bean paste filling. So they taste soft, fluffy and sweet. The skin is moist and savoury, while the yolk is richly sweet.
The wagashi originated in Fukuoka before it started becoming popular in Tokyo. As a result, some people feel there is a difference, with the Tokyo version being slightly rounder and plumper. Having tried Hiyoko from both states, we can't taste the difference, but they're both equally as adorable in appearance.
The original inventor of Hiyoko made these adorable Japanese snacks after he had a dream. The town where the wagashi was invented is also a mining town. The miners loved it, and so they ate them to maintain their energy. Due to its unique history and taste, you should buy some and share the lovely story with your friends.
When it comes to traditional Japanese sweets, it's hard not to mention Taiyaki. It's a fish-shaped cake with sweet red bean paste inside.
Taiyaki has a fragile, almost waffle-like crispy skin. You'll taste the paste immediately when you bite into the warm dessert. While it's usually red bean paste inside, you might find chocolate, matcha and custard flavours. We can never go without eating Taiyaki during a Japanese winter, and it's easy to find since most food stands around the country will sell it.
Taiyaki is unique to Japan and immediately recognisable overseas. But you might find innovative adaptations of the snack, such as an ice-cream version where the Taiyaki waffle acts like a cone to hold scoops of ice cream.
Fun fact: It's said that the fish shape is because fish symbolise luck in Asian culture. So, why not increase your luck when you're craving something sweet? And if you want to make it at home, you just need a Taiyaki waffle mould. It's super simple and delicious.
Best Traditional Japanese Sweets to Try
- Raindrop cake kit
- Nerikiri moulds
- Tokyo Banana
- Umeboshi Candy
If you've liked this list, hop over to our Instagram @honestfoodtalks to discover more delicious snacks to add to your own Japanese treat box!
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