four seasons with tree's different look

Japanese Sweets: A guide to the different occasions

by: Hideo Takahashi



Time to read 7 min

Japanese Sweets: A Guide to the Different Occasions

Japanese sweets, or "wagashi", are famous all over Japan for their aesthetic beauty and delicate

flavors. They are eaten on different occasions, and some are enjoyed as daily treats, while others are made

specifically for traditional celebrations. There are also wagashi inspired by seasonal motifs, ingredients, and regional specialties: let's look at the vast world of these small and tasty

traditional art crafts.

Wagashi for Festive Occasions

Japan is known for having a wide variety of festivities: starting from "matsuri", which are local folkloristic

festivals, to seasonal traditions such as cherry blossom viewing, to national celebrations like New Year's

Day. Enjoying wagashi during these occasions is an essential part of Japanese culture: unique sweets

are prepared and sold, as they are a tasty opportunity to appreciate these special days even more.


Matsuri are folkloristic festivals that involve celebrations of local gods and rituals: during these events,

people often visit shrines and temples to offer wagashi to deities as a symbol of devotion, and the city is

filled with street food stalls: they sell popular snacks, meals, and popular sweets such as "dango"

(glutinous rice dumplings), and "taiyaki", Japanese-style waffles that have a characteristic fish shape.


 Taiyaki: a Japanese fish-shaped sweet-filled waffle

Often enjoyed with multiple flavors: custard, chocolate, sweet potato, etc.

New Year's and Other Special Celebrations

New Year's Day is the most important holiday in Japan: family reunites to celebrate the fresh start of the

new year, eating "osechi", a traditional meal composed of different dishes, each carrying a special

meaning, and often visiting a shrine or a temple. During New Year's Day, it is expected to enjoy

"hanabira-mochi", literally meaning "flower petal mochi": is a traditional sweet made of a semicircular

layer of mochi covering that contains anko (sweet bean paste), and a thin strip of sweetly flavored


"Tanabata" is another important Japanese festivity, also known as the Star Festival; it celebrates the

meeting of the divinities Orihime and Hikoboshi, represented by the stars Vega and Altair, on the 7th of

July. Many famous wagashi brands produce sweets resembling the Milky Way on this occasion.



Captivating people with the harmonized flavor from the sweetness of Anko and the softness of mochi

Hanami Delights: Cherry Blossom Viewing Sweets

Hanami is a Japanese custom of enjoying cherry blossoms, mostly in April. It is common to have an

outdoor party with family or friends and bring food to eat together. And of course, some sweets are

always present, too! Three main wagashi types are enjoyed in the Hanami season: "kusa-mochi", made

from mochi and leaves of yomogi (Japanese mugwort), "sakura-mochi", a pink-colored mochi wrapped

in a cherry leaf, and "sanshoku dango", which consists in three dango balls colored in pink, white and


Tea Ceremony

During the tea ceremony, wagashi are eaten because they help sweeten the inside of the mouth, allowing one to enjoy the bitterness of the Japanese tea served after that. These

sweets often resemble seasonal motifs and are offered in bite-size portions.

Sweet Surprises for Daily Life

Wagashi are not offered only during festive occasions; in fact, they are enjoyed daily, both at work and

at home, with friends and relatives.

Office Treats

Because of their beauty and high quality, wagashi are often exchanged on business occasions: gifting

traditional sweets to business partners and customers symbolizes respect and courtesy.

Tea Time Sweets

It is expected to have wagashi, such as "daifuku", a mochi containing azuki paste, and "yokan",

consisting of an agar-agar and azuki paste cake. They are often offered together with a cup of

Japanese tea.



The name "daifuku" translates to "great luck" and it is enjoyed whether is as a sweet treat with tea or as a symbol of good fortune during celebrations.



Often comes in various flavors: matcha, yuzu(citrus), and even fruit flavors.

Seasonal Sweets: A Taste of Nature

Japanese culture is characterized by a deep connection with nature: many paintings, songs, dishes, and

even sweets are inspired by natural and seasonal elements.

Sakura and Matcha: Springtime Sweets

During springtime, it is common to see wagashi inspired by "sakura", or cherry blossoms, and by

matcha: the before explained "sakura-mochi" and "sanshoku dango" are just two examples of these

beautiful sweets flavored and shaped like cherry blossom flowers. Green tea is another popular

ingredient: during this period, you can find many matcha-flavored wagashi, such as yokan,

daifuku, and dango!



The outer layer is wrapped in a preserved cherry blossom leaf, conveying a subtle fragrance.

Sweet Potato Delights: Autumn's Unique Flavors

Sweet potatoes are one of the leading Japanese Autumnal ingredients: they are served both as salty

meals and as sweets. They are appreciated mainly for their natural sweet flavor and creamy texture.

One of the most popular sweet potato sweets is "imo-yokan": it consists of a jelly dessert which,

although its name, has an entirely different taste from the traditional agar-agar yokan.



A popular choice during the fall season in Japan because of its rich and velvety savoring. 

Regional Sweet Specialties: Sweets to try when traveling to Japan

Even though wagashi are becoming increasingly known worldwide, we should remember that

each has its history, which was handed down for centuries before arriving to us. The

natural environments of each Japanese region have created their culinary traditions, and discovering

their uniqueness will be a worthy experience you will never forget!

Okinawa's Sweet Secrets: Island Flavors

Okinawa is the most unique Japanese region: its linguistic, artistic, and culinary traditions are very

different from the rest of Japan, and of course, it has its types of wagashi: an example is the "beni-imo

tart", which consists of a mix of Okinawa sweet potato and baked tart dough. Sweet potatoes were

introduced to Japan from China through Okinawa, in the early 17th century.

Hokkaido's Creamy Creations: Sweets from the North

Hokkaido is known for being the northernmost region of Japan, and is famous for its many culinary

products, like ramen, crabs, dairy products, and "shiroan": it consists of a sweet white paste derived

from navy beans, and is nowadays primarily used to produce wagashi such as "manju", a flour and rice

powder-based confection that contains a filling of bean paste.

Kyoto's Timeless Delights: Traditional Sweets in the Ancient Capital

Kyoto is Japan's second most popular city: it is loved by people from all over the world for its

historical and cultural value: it was Japan's capital from 794 until 1868 and is home to countless temples

and shrines. An example of a wagashi from Kyoto is "yatsuhashi", a glutinous rice wrapping

folded to make a triangular shape with red bean paste inside.



Enjoyed in two forms: baked and unbaked. The baked one has a crispy texture, while the unbaked version maintains a softer, mochi-like consistency. (the unbaked one in the picture above)

Tokyo's Sweet Scene: Urban Desserts and Trendy Treats

Being a metropolitan area, Tokyo showcases various sweets from all over Japan. While some

of them are very strict with tradition, many wagashi stores offer innovative sweets that are influenced by

Western cultures. An example is "Wagashi Asobi": a popular wagashi shop selling creative

products like yokan made with dried fruits.

Sweet Souvenirs and Gifts

Wagashi are often given as gifts and souvenirs, both by Japanese and foreign people: during vacations

or work trips, it is expected to buy local specialties like the ones we talked about above for friends and

relatives; also, the low disponibility of Japanese sweets in foreign countries and their unique beauty

make wagashi the perfect souvenir to bring back in your country!

DIY Sweets: Making Japanese Treats at Home

Did you know that there are some wagashi that can be cooked at your own home? Some ingredients

such as rice flour, azuki beans, and sweet potatoes, can also be found in foreign countries! You can

find online recipes of relatively easy-to-make sweets like "dorayaki", pancake-like sandwiches containing

red bean paste, or "anmitsu", consisting of sweet syrup with agar-agar jelly cubes and red bean paste.

Making Japanese treats can be a delightful and entertaining hobby!

The antique art of Japanese sweets is a mix of tradition, connection with nature, research of

perfection, majestic delicacy, and attention to detail. Exploring the immense world of these tasty cultural

treasures will be an exciting and delightful experience allowing you to discover the

Japanese values of beauty and excellence.



The combination of the ingredients results in a subtly sweet and aromatic outer layer and rich, earthy sweetness inside. 

Author Bio

Hideo Takahashi

Hideo Takahashi

Born in Tokyo in 1990. Founder of JAPANBITE and CEO of its operating company, GRID Start, Ltd.
Established the company in 2023 after being a consultant of IT infrastructure.
Inspired by his travels to 15 countries and a deep love for Japanese food, he launched a service to contribute to small local Japanese manufacturers' businesses and allow many foreigners to enjoy Japanese culture.

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