Popular Japanese Sweets and Treats
Japanese cuisine is strongly associated with classy restaurants and premium-quality seafood dishes, amongst many other gastronomic delights. However, sweet treats often fall by the wayside when it comes to our (Western) knowledge of Japanese cuisine – and boy are we missing out! So, today I’m bringing you a huge guide to Japanese sweets: from traditional treats to konbini confections, and unusual flavours to irresistable baked goods. Maybe you’ll spot an old favourite, or discover something new? Either way, I’m sorry in advance for making you hungry…
Traditional Japanese Sweet Flavours
Let’s start off with some classic flavours you will typically find in Japanese sweets both traditional and contemporary.
Matcha: The variant of green tea is common to Japanese tea ceremonies, which involve whisking the powdered form. Matcha has a rich and full-bodied taste. If matcha isn’t your cup of tea, it doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t like matcha-flavoured foods, which are often sweeter to the taste.
Azuki: This red bean is a traditional flavour in Japanese sweets and desserts. Though the bean is not naturally sweet, it is often baked into anko – a paste made from azuki beans and sugar.
Sweet Potato: As a Brit, finding out that many Japanese sweets were potato-flavoured was a bit of an odd one. To be precise, it’s purple sweet potato or ube, and is simply is a non-artificial sweet flavour! If you’re heading to Japan, keep an eye out for purple-tinted sweets and desserts – it’s likely sweet potato!
Traditional Japanese Sweets
The eagle-eyed amongst you may be thinking I’m just rewriting an old blog post – I promise it’s a little different! ‘10 Best Japanese Desserts’ by Jez refers to traditional sweets and desserts only. This blog post will touch up on a couple of those same traditional favourites, but (hopefully) also introduce you to some lesser-known treats! Here goes…
Mochi – もち
Mochi is probably the best-known Japanese sweet. It is described as a rice cake but is absolutely nothing like what we call rice cakes here in the UK. It is a soft, marshmallow-like texture and is made from pounding rice into a paste before rolling into little balls or moulding into other shapes. You can still see this (mochitsuki) in action in Nara for example, and in some places, you can even try it out yourself! Mochi are commonly found in souvenir shops and often are flavoured with a local speciality. Click to read Jez’s ’10 Best Japanese Desserts’ and discover more varieties of mochi!
Dorayaki – どら焼き
A dorayaki is essentially made up of two small pancakes sandwiched around a sweet fruit filling. Usually, dorayaki are filled with anko (a sweet red bean paste) though other flavours including a chocolate, cream and chestnut cream are common too. I’m already getting peckish…
Momiji Manju – 紅葉饅頭, もみじ まんじゅう
This delectable sweet is made from both buckwheat and rice cake, and is moulded into the shape of a maple leaf. The maple leaf-shaped manju is typically filled with azuki bean jam, but other flavours including chocolate, custard cream, green tea, and cream cheese can also be purchased. The Momiji manju is a speciality found in Hiroshima and on the nearby island of Itsukushima (famous for its huge torii gate). If you visit Itsukushima, you can purchase them to eat fresh (including fried momiji manju which is soooo good!) or purchase a box of the treats as a souvenir. Whilst you’re there, you can even watch how they’re made!
Momiji manju sweets were first made in the Meiji period of Japan (1868-1912). They were originally created as a form of wagashi – a sweet to balance out the bitterness of tea in traditional tea ceremonies. The creator, Takatsu Tsunesuke, supplied wagashi to a Japanese-style inn (a ryokan) in Momiji-dani (meaning ‘Maple Leaf Valley’) situated on the island of Itsukushima. The mistress of the ryokan asked Tsunesuke to create a souvenir sweet that was unique to Momiji-dani, and in 1906, Tsunesuke perfected the marvellous Momiji manju.
Tansan Senbei – 炭酸煎餅, たんさん せんべい
Tansan Senbei are a type of rice cracker made with baking soda. They’re lightly sweet, delicately thin, and can be served with melted chocolate. They can be found in the small hot spring community, Arima Onsen in Hyōgo. I’m fairly sure I bought mine from Wagashi Kōbō where you could watch as the Tansan Senbei, amongst other sweets, were made. They make a great souvenir if you plan on visiting Arima Onsen!
Japanese Baked Goods
Melon Pan – メロンパン
Pan comes from the Portugese for bread. Melon comes from… well, melons. If you’ve already guessed that this is melon-flavoured bread, you would be wrong. This delicious sweet bun is named as such due to its large size and domed shape: it sort of resembles a melon. The sweet dough bun has a crispy surface layer, often sprinkled with sugar. ‘Original’ melon pan is just a sweet and buttery dough taste, but other varieties include chocolate chip, matcha, cinnamon, and maple. You can also find various colours of melon pan, jumbo-sized melon pan and cream-filled melon pan. In Hiroshima, green melon pan are available with a cantaloupe cream filling! These buns are so good, I blame them for 70% of the pounds I packed on in Japan!
Taiyaki – たい焼き
Meaning ‘baked red sea bream’, there’s nothing fishy about the taste! All terrible jokes aside, the taiyaki is a sweet anko-based treat created by Osakan Seijirō Kanbe in Tokyo during the Meiji period. The taiyaki is essentially a sort of pancake exterior with a generous cream and anko filling. However, it can also be made with other sweet fillings and savoury flavours! A hundred years prior to its conception, the imagawayaki was created in a standard circular cake shape. Kanbe’s sales of imagawayaki were heading south when he came up with the idea of using the red sea bream shape to sell his snacks! The sea bream fish is a symbol of good luck in Japan, and good luck it brought to his business. Today, his shop Naniwaya Sohonten is still open for business in Azabu Juban, Tokyo!
Popular Konbini Sweets
It wouldn’t be fair to describe some of Japan’s most popular sweet snacks without including modern favouites too. Below are some of the most popular snacks you can find in konbinis and supermarkets across Japan.
Borubon Puchi – ボルボン プチ
I’m a big snacker (if you haven’t already guessed…) and my favourite British brand of digestive biscuits just weren’t the same in Japanese supermarkets. In my search for a worthy replacement, I stumbled on a whole section of shelves dedicated to borubon puchi snacks. If my phone died (taking with it my trusty Japanese dictionary) I didn’t always know what I was buying, but I was never disappointed! The product selection is made up of plenty of sweet or savoury varieties. In my opinion, these products aren’t talked about enough and I would love to see them here in the UK. If you’re in need of some nibbly bits in Japan I wholly recommend these. The dark roasted soybean wafers were my favourite!
Top row, left-right: cookies and cream, roasted cheese crackers, langues de chat, prawn flavoured crackers, lightly salted potato crisps, choc-chip cookies, baked grilled shrimp crackers, mustard roe crackers, and consomme potato crisps.
Bottom row, left-right: white chocolate-filled biscuits, baked crackers, baked cheese crackers, dark roasted soybean wafers, caramel cookies, wasabi potato crisps, chocolate chip matcha cookies, green pea and soy bean crisps, and cheese crackers.
Pocky/Toppo – ポッキー / トッポ
Wherever you’re from, I’m sure you’ve discovered pocky in the biscuits or ‘world foods’ aisles of your local supermarket. And with good reason! These long chocolate-covered biscuits are so good, and come in many-a-flavour! Toppo are similar, but where Pocky are dipped in chocolate, Toppo instead are filled with chocolate – a biscuity straw, if you will. Pocky are a Japanese product by Glico (if you’ve visited the Dotonbōri area of Osaka, you’ll be privy to the famous Glico man), whereas Toppo are a product of Lotte – a Korean confectionary brand. Both are favourite party snacks if you’re hoping to impress new friends.
Takenoko-no-sato/Kinoko-no-yama – たけのこ / きのこ
The chocolates of the same brand differ in name and shape. Ta-kenoko means bamboo shoot and sato refers to a countryside village. Though they’re meant to look like bamboo shoots, the small chocolate-covered biscuits more closely resemble pine cones. Ki-noko means mushroom and yama means mountain, so these little chocolate-dipped biscuits appear to be mountain-top mushrooms – very cute. Though there seems to be a (whimsical) debate over which is better, the two variations are basically the same thing: sweet biscuit with a delicious layer of chocolate atop. Available at probably any konbini and Japanese supermarket alike – give them a try!
KitKat – キットカット
We have KitKat in the UK, the USA, all over Europe and the rest of the world – so what’s it doing on this list? Ever since KitKat entered the Japanese market under its parent brand, Rowntrees, back in the 70’s, it became immensely popular and has grown to offer over 300 varieties! Matcha and strawberry-flavoured KitKats are among the most common, but you can also get your hands on flavours like Purple Sweet Potato, Wasabi, Azuki Bean, Blueberry Cheesecake, and Ume Sake! Check out this article by Tripzilla to explore some of the KitKat varieties unique to Japan!
In Japanese, KitKat is pronounced kitto-katto which, luckily for their marketing team is similar to the phrase kitto katsu, meaning ‘you will surely win’, or ‘you’re bound to succeed’. As such, KitKats are often gifted to students before big exams as a good luck charm!
Japanese sweets certainly don’t end there – but unfortunately we can’t go on and on. Have you ever tried any of the above? Or do you have a favourite from your travels in Japan you didn’t see on the list? Let us know your recommendations in our comments and hopefully we’ll be lucky enough to try them out. Now, where can I find some Melon Pan…