Toraya’s 18th generation wagashi maker, Mitsuharu Kurokawa, gives us an overview of wagashi. Wagashi directly translates as “Japanese sweets”. Despite being rooted in long history and traditions, “wagashi” is a relatively new word, as all sweets were called “Kashi
(菓子, Chinese characters for fruit)” and referred to fruits and nuts in ancient Japan. “Our ancestors ate acorns, but it was very bitter, so they needed to grind it, and soak it in the water to remove the bitterness. Using this, they started making small balls of snacks, which is the origin of dango (Japanese dumplings) and mochi, the oldest human-made wagashi,” explains Kurokawa.
After sugar became more common due to trade and the introduction of tea, and with the subsequent rise of tea ceremony culture, wagashi creation took off during the Edo period in Japan. Today, it is regarded as an art form, its delicate appearance an emblematic nod to Japan’s refined and precise culinary culture. Spanning forms such as dango and mochi, dumplings and rice cakes made of glutinous rice; manjyu, steamed cakes of thick azuki red bean paste; Uiro, steamed cake made of rice flour and sugar; and of course yokan, wagashi typically requires a lot of work and is unique to the region and the season it’s made in.
One of the oldest wagashi shops, Toraya, was founded in the early 16th century in Kyoto where it became a purveyor to the imperial court during the reign of Emperor Goyozei, from 1586 to 1611, supplying wagashi to royalty and emperors during seasonal festivals and special occasions. Through the years, Toraya has established itself particularly in the production of yokan. Some of their signature yokan, the “Yoru no ume” (Plum blossom at night) was inspired by an old poetry book that dates back to 905 and it remains one of their bestselling items today. While the ancient text did not indicate specific ingredients, Toraya’s interpretation consists of whole red beans so the cross section of the yokan looks like plum blossoms while the dark yokan base reminds one of a starless night sky.
Another signature seasonal wagashi at Toraya is the “Hanabira mochi” (flower petal mochi) where a flat circle of mochi is folded into a semi-circle which envelops a strip of burdock, white bean and miso paste—it looks like a white taco that is pink in the middle. This confectionary was originally crafted for the royal family’s new year celebrations.
Today, [wagashi] is regarded as an art form, its delicate appearance an emblematic nod to Japan’s refined and
precise culinary culture.