It may seem as if much wagashi, Japanese traditional sweet confectionery, is designed as much to be looked at as eaten, such is its visual attractiveness and evident craftsmanship. Traditional Japanese sweets are not of the Sunday-treat, cavity-inducing variety, but rather are designed for offsetting the bitter taste of the sencha Japanese green tea used in the tea ceremony. The craft of making wagashi reaches its pinnacle in Kyoto, most famously with higashi.
Namagashi are uncooked sweet paste confections filled with red an sweet azuki bean paste. Han-namagashi are less-moist sweets, including Okayama favourite kibi dango, made with proso millet, and the delicacy mitarashi dango rice flour dumplings, a speciality of Kyoto’s Shimogamo shrine. The Chinese characters for ‘mitarashi’ are exactly the same as for ‘o-tearai’, the honourable hand-washing place. Yes, alas, the lavatory. Most visitors are far too polite to mention this.
Higashi, an all-encompassing category of dried sweets and senbei rice crackers, usually refers to the moulded rice-paste and sugar confections made especially for the tea ceremony. These are delicately coloured, and crafted to reflect imagery appropriate to the season. Nagoya’s favourite wagashi, uiro, is a plain, gelatinous block, filled with powdered tea or red beans.
No summer festival is complete without kakigori. Simply a mountain of shaved ice, doused in a vivid syrup of shamelessly synthetic vulgarity. It is, of course, hugely popular, with both adults and kids slurping it down.
The sweet flavoring on everyone’s lips, both literally and metaphorically, is matcha green tea. It’s popularity has exploded exponentially in recent years, especially with visitors to the ancient capital of Kyoto whose tea culture means that the finest raw materials, from nearby Uji and Wazuka, are readily to hand. Matcha-aisu ice-cream, and matcha parfait, are the current favorites, but it may be found in just about everything these days. A hugely popular souvenir of a Japan visit these days is a box of matcha-flavored Hello Kitty-themed Kit Kat bars.