Meticlously made wagashi and the process of the production

Why Japanese sweets are so expensive

by: Hideo Takahashi



Time to read 5 min

Why Japanese sweets are so expensive

I. Introduction

Wagashi are traditional Japanese sweets, often enjoyed with green tea. People of all ages love them for their delicate and precise beauty, as well as their delicious flavors and their natural healthiness. Nowadays, the culture of wagashi has started spreading worldwide: while they are largely appreciated for their intricate artistry, Japanese sweets are known for their high prices, too. But what is it due to? Let's take a look at the factors that make wagashi that expensive.

II. The Artistry of Japanese Sweets

The intricate design that characterizes Japanese sweets makes each wagashi a piece of art: wagashi artisans are required not only to have excellent cooking skills but also to have the expressiveness to replicate the beauty of animals and plants in the sweets they make, just like other Japanese artworks such as kimonos and pottery, they are inspired by nature and often by seasonal motifs like cherry blossoms in Spring, Hydrangea in Summer, maple leaves in Autumn, and snow rabbits in Winter. Every wagashi's delicate decorations, vivid colors, and precise shapes require extraordinary attention to detail that will certainly contribute to the high prices of these small, beautiful artworks.
Manju in maple leaves shape

III. Quality Ingredients

Japanese sweets are produced based on natural products and, except for chicken eggs, mainly from vegetable sources: common ingredients include azuki beans, agar-agar, glutinous rice, rice flour, green tea, sweet potatoes, and seasonal fruits like peaches and pears. To guarantee the best flavor and appearance of each wagashi, all these ingredients need to have the highest quality possible: in fact, farmers pay great attention to the water and the soil where their products will grow, and agar-agar collectors will look for the best red algae in the sea. This precise selection of superior ingredients will cause an increase in production prices. In addition, the fact that some wagashi are prepared with seasonal ingredients that have limited availability will also add to the overall cost.
azuki beans and rice flour

IV. Time-Consuming Production

The making of Japanese sweets requires a remarkable amount of time and effort: for example, the preparation of anko (sweet azuki paste) involves selecting and cleaning the beans, slowly cooking them, and then mashing and sweetening them to the right consistency and flavor. And this is just one of the essential ingredients of a wagashi! Another factor that we must consider is the typical small-batch production: each wagashi is handcrafted and paid great attention to maintain its quality, and this, unlike mass-produced sweets, requires a higher labor cost per unit.

V. Traditional Techniques and Heritage

The production of wagashi is deeply rooted in Japanese culture: the meaning of each color and symbol, the meticulous shaping, the decorating techniques, and the right flavors and consistency are all part of an important heritage that has been handed down from one generation to the other, for over two- thousand years. Therefore, the cultural significance of these traditional sweets is another factor that makes wagashi an expensive but worthy experience.

VI. Packaging and Presentation

Attention to detail is a crucial part of Japanese culture: sweets are appreciated not only for their aesthetics and flavors but also for their presentation. Packaging is an opportunity to create beautiful arrangements that complete the experience and visually please the customer even before opening the confection. In addition, the fact that sweets are often exchanged as gifts on various occasions is another reason why wagashi makers pay attention to their packages: they often incorporate traditional and seasonal motifs, expressing their connection with nature and celebrating events.

Oseibo: a gift to express gratitude at the end of the year

Oseibo: a gift to express gratitude at the end of the year

VII. Branding and Reputation

Craftsman families have handed down the production techniques of wagashi for hundreds of generations. Each family has become a brand with its own techniques and artistic presentations that will add to the overall cost of the sweets. Here are some of the most known wagashi brands: 

● Toraya Confectionery derives from "Kurokawa Enchu", founded in the 16th Century in Kyoto, and joined as a purveyor to the Imperial Court in Kyoto during the reign of Emperor Go-Yozei.

● Minamoto Kitchoan: they offer traditional and modern-style wagashi, often in beautiful packaging. 

● Yoku Moku: it is primarily known for its butter cookies. The company offers a wide selection of wagashi inspired by Western sweets. 

● Shinjuku Yamanote: this company specializes in "yokan", wagashi made from azuki paste and agar-agar. 

● Chikara Mochi: this brand is known for its mochi, traditional rice cakes.

● Asakusa Amezaiku Ameshin: they specialize in “amezaiku”, Japanese traditional candy craft artistry.

VIII. Export Costs and Import Markups

Export costs and import markups are another important factor that makes wagashi that expensive: Shipping Japanese sweets to international markets involves transportation costs, and import regulations must also be considered. Certifications, labeling, and quarantine procedures may be necessary, depending on the country. Also, the demand for Japanese sweets in international markets can influence their costs: a high demand, added to the perception of wagashi as premium products, might cause an increase in their prices.

IX. Economic Factors

One of the primary economic factors impacting the cost of Japanese sweets is the exchange rate: Nowadays, the Japanese currency, the yen, is weaker than usual; consequently, export fees are higher.

X. Cultural and Social Factors

Japanese culture strongly emphasizes quality and attention to detail: each piece of wagashi has to be flawless from every point of view, starting from how it looks to the flavors and, last but not least, to the taste. Japanese sweets makers follow traditional making techniques that are labor-intensive and contribute to the high quality of the wagashi and, therefore, to their costs. For this reason, wagashi are often exchanged as gifts during cultural and social events, such as weddings and births: this can lead to a willingness to pay a premium for high-quality sweets.

A Japanese style wedding

A Japanese style wedding

XI. Conclusion

Wagashi are much more than simple sweets: they are an important part of the Japanese tradition and play a significant role in various cultural ceremonies and events. Their artistry, ingredients, presentation, and branding are all part of a heritage that encompasses a reverence for Japanese history and the time- honored techniques that each artisan's family has thoughtfully preserved.

XII. Final Thoughts

Today, you can experience these traditional, beautiful sweets without the necessity to travel to Japan: JAPANBITE is a Japanese service that allows you to have your wagashi at your own house! As we journey into the delicate world of wagashi, we are not just eating a treat, but we are invited to embrace centuries of craftsmanship and heritage of Japanese culture. So why don't you try savoring this delicious part of Japanese tradition, through these small but mesmerizing artworks? 

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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