Exploring the world of Yokan: a sweet delight of Japanese tradition

by: Hideo Takahashi



Time to read 9 min

This article will discover one of the most famous traditional Japanese sweets, yokan. Even though this sweet is made from simple ingredients like agar-agar and red bean paste, its unique richness, aesthetic, and taste will undoubtedly mesmerize your eyes and palate! Let's look at the many versions and variations the country offers, and why not learn to prepare yokan at home?

Meaning of “ yokan ”

Literal meaning

Yokan is a typical Japanese sweet made by adding sugar and agar-agar to red bean paste and simmering or steaming it while soaking it. The word "yokan" consists of two ideograms:  

  • "羊" (よう, "you") means "sheep."  

  • “羹” (かん, “kan”) means “hot beverage”  

This term originally referred to stewed sheep meat: this meal was introduced to Japan from China, but since Zen monks in Japan were forbidden to eat meat, it has become a vegetarian dish with red beans instead of mutton.  

Cultural meaning

As we wrote, Yokan was originally a food closely related to Buddhism.  

In the Edo period, yokan as a dish almost disappeared, and when sugar became less scarce, it began to be treated as a confectionery.  

Nowadays, yokan, made from various ingredients, is produced nationwide. This is because during the Meiji era (1868-1912), a significant increase in tourists occurred due to the development of transportation networks, and the demand for souvenirs became a great opportunity for this sweet to spread! In addition, the government recommended the production of limited products using local specialties to participate in national and international expositions.  

Reproducing the four seasons and often used as a gift or served in a tea ceremony, yokan represents Japanese confectionery culture.  

Today, we can appreciate a wide range of yokan, from high-end products found in long-established stores to sweets you can buy at a lower price in local supermarkets.  

In recent years, small-sized yokans have become extremely popular. Unlike the traditional larger ones, they do not need to be cut, so you can easily carry them and have them as a small but consistent snack. Moreover, since they can be stored for a long time at room temperature and are highly nutritional, they are also helpful as emergency food in such a disaster-prone country.  

In this way, yokan is still evolving in Japanese society to meet the citizens' cultural and modern needs.

Types of yokan

Let's discover some of yokan's dozens of types, sizes, and shapes. In terms of the making process, this sweet has two main types: steamed yokan and kneaded (neri) yokan.  

Mizu yokan

"Mizu yokan" (literally meaning "water yokan") is made by boiling agar-agar, melting it, mixing it with sugar and strained bean paste, pouring it into a mold, and hardening it. The amount of agar-agar is relatively low, while it is rich in water. Therefore, its principal characteristic is an exceptionally smooth texture.  

In the past, mizu yokan was prepared in Winter as a sweet for New Year's Day. Still, with the spread of refrigeration technology, it became possible to manufacture it in warmer months as well, and the tendency to make it year-round became stronger. Due to its refreshingness, it has become a typical summer confectionery: during this period of the year, you can see many colorful products inspired by seasonal motifs such as goldfish and the blue sky. 

Mizu yokan

Mizu Yokan via Kyoto Kogetsu

Tama yokan

This yokan has the peculiarity of being sold in a small balloon and, therefore, has a round shape, which has given it its name (tama means "round" or "ball")!  

Tama yokan was first manufactured by a store called Tamashimaya in 1938. It was designed to allow people living in war zones to preserve its soft texture even after a long period. It has been handed down for a long time, and nowadays, tama yokan has spread to confectionery shops all over the country.  

You can eat the content by popping the rubber balloon, and the squishy feeling that comes out is indescribable! Many Korean and Chinese influencers and YouTubers have recently uploaded videos featuring this treat, making it a hot topic.  

Imo yokan

Imo yokan, which stands for "potato", is made by steaming, kneading, and molding sweet potatoes.  

Its story is quite interesting: in the Meiji era (XIX-XX Centuries), traditional yokan was too expensive for common people, so a potato wholesaler and a confectioner in Asakusa tried recreating this sweet with cheaper ingredients. As a result, their product was instantly welcomed as a familiar treat for citizens of all ages.  

If you have sweet potatoes, the main ingredient, you can make this treat all year round, even at home!  

Imo Yokan

Neri yokan

Steamed yokan is mainly made by heating starch (wheat, rice, etc.) to harden. In comparison, neri (kneaded) yokan is primarily made with agar-agar and hardens when cooled; when written as "yokan", it is usually referred to as this type. It is said to have been invented by Surugaya, a confectionery shop in Kyoto. Because of its good shelf life, neri yokan is also famous as an emergency food and a supplementary snack for sports.  

Matcha yokan

This yokan is made with matcha and is characterized by its green color, moderate bitterness, and green tea flavor. At the time of its release in 1957, it consisted of a green yokan that contained chlorophyll and vitamin B and was approved by the Ministry of Health and Welfare as an exceptional nutritional food; it became the matcha yokan we know today in 1965. Recently, matcha is gaining popularity worldwide, and this treat is often bought as a souvenir.  

Matcha yokan

Matcha Yokan via Toraya

Fruits yokan

As the name suggests, this yokan contains colorful fruits that give it a fresh flavor and an adorable appearance. It has become popular especially in recent years. Manufacturers use seasonal fruits such as grapes, peaches, etc. Recently, a variation containing dried fruits has also been released.  

Fruit yokan

Fruit yokan via Fujingaho-shop.jp

Seasonal yokan

Seasonal yokan also uses time-limited ingredients to reflect the scenery and motifs of different periods of the year. Each Japanese confectionery shop has devised a way to create its sense of the season: for example, WAKUDEN's "Yuki no Akari" represents the appearance of sprouts peeking out from between the snows on a midwinter night, and Kindaruma's "Haru Fujimi Yokan" recreates Mt. Fuji in full bloom with cherry blossoms and matcha.  

Many products allow you to feel the sense of the season not only from the taste but also from the appearance; for this reason, they are also very appreciated as gifts.  

Some of the most common Japanese seasonal motifs include cherry blossoms in spring, blue sky and goldfish in summer, autumn leaves in autumn, and snow in Winter.  

Regional varieties

We can find a wide variety of yokan not only depending on the season but also on the region: they recall provincial traditions and are also made using local specialties. Let us introduce you to three famous local yokan: 

"Gokatteya Yokan" from Hokkaido Prefecture

Thiss yokan has been manufactured and sold since 187 using beans harvested in Hokkaido1. One of their most popular products, the "Round Can Yokan," was conceived as a way to eat without getting your hands dirt and has been loved for over a century; you can easily push out as much yokan as you want to eat from the bottom and cut it to the needed size with a special thread attached to the container. 

"Shintsuru Salt Yokan" from Nagano Prefecture

This unique confectionery was born from adding salt, a valuable product in such an area with no direct connection to the sea. The balance between exquisite saltiness and refreshing sweetness is widely loved and is often recommended for people who do not love sweets.  

"Oiwake Yokan" from Shizuoka Prefecture

It is sold wrapped in bamboo bark, which has a strong antibacterial effect and has been appreciated by travelers for many years. Even today, each piece of bamboo bark is hand-washed meticulously to preserve the traditional taste.

Not only do Japanese confectionery manufacturers use local specialties, but they also make yokan with traditional methods, according to the climate and geography of their region.

How to enjoy yokan

The traditional way to eat yokan is to cut it into bite-sized pieces with a toothpick, which is served together and used as a fork.  

In general, it is a sweet that goes well with green tea, but recently, various arranged recipes have been released to enjoy them in different ways.  

Surprisingly, many long-established Japanese confectionery makers recommend having yokan with Western alcoholic beverages such as champagne, sparkling wine, whiskey, etc.  

Moreover, if you combine yokan with other ingredients and drinks, you can discover innovative ways to enjoy this treat. For example, the "Yokan Sandwich" is a snack consisting of a 2mm-wide yokan placed between two slices of white bread spread with cream cheese. In addition, sprinkling diced yokan unsweetened cocoa powder will have a texture similar to raw chocolate; if you prefer dried fruits, you can soak them in rum and put them on yokan to turn it into a slightly luxurious dessert.  

Health benefits and nutritional values

As we anticipated, yokan has many nutritional properties: first, since its main ingredients are red beans and agar-agar, it is rich in protein and fiber. Since they are present both in their water-soluble and insoluble conformations, they effectively lower blood cholesterol and prevent arteriosclerosis, constipation, and colorectal cancer. In addition, Yokan is high in calories and sugar, which are quickly converted into energy in the body, so it has been attracting attention in recent years as a supplementary food for sports. It also contains polyphenols with a high antioxidant property and can be expected to be efficient in anti-aging effects and lifestyle-related disease prevention. 

How to make yokan

Yokan ingredients

Did you know that you can make yokan with only four ingredients? You only need red beans, agar-agar, sugar, and water! Notice that neri yokan requires higher amounts of sugar and water.  

Steps to make yokan

Prepare a small copper pot, a spatula, and a rectangular cake pan; the basic process of making yokan is as follows:

  1. Melt the agar-agar in the pot

  1. Add sugar

  1. Add the red bean paste

  1. Knead well your "dough"

  1. Please put it in the cake pan and wait for it to harden

Where to buy yokan

Where to buy yokan when visiting Japan

During your trip to Japan, you can find yokan almost in every supermarket and convenience store. It will not cost more than 3-5 USD, so it is a great idea for an affordable yet delicious treat! If you are looking for seasonal or regional specialties or if you would like to try a more sophisticated yokan, you should go to a confectionary shop or a department store.  

Where to buy yokan in your country

Japanese foods have gained tremendous popularity worldwide: while you can find products like soy sauce and pocky almost in every superstore, visiting an Asian store is often a better idea if you are looking for more traditional sweets like yokan. However, many unique and regional delicacies can only be found in Japan; for this reason, we recommend you use online Japanese services like  JAPANBITE , which will send you every month an extensive collection of high-end traditional confectioneries and green tea, allowing you to enjoy the Japanese spirit no matter where you are!

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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