The rich and unique Japanese flavours found in Japanese cuisine are strongly associated with premium-quality seafood dishes and classy restaurants, amongst many other culinary delights. However, sweet treats often fall by the wayside when it comes to our (Western) knowledge of Japanese cuisine – and boy we’re missing out!
Here, we explore a guide to popular Japanese sweets: from traditional treats to konbini confections, and unusual flavours to irresistible baked goods. Maybe you’ll discover something new or spot an old favourite? Either way, we’re sorry in advance for making you hungry…
Traditional Japanese Sweet Flavours
Let’s start with some classic flavours you will typically find in both contemporary and traditional Japanese sweets.
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.
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: Finding out that many Japanese sweets are potato-flavoured is a bit of a unique idea!To be precise, it’s purple sweet potato or ube, and 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
Here, we introduce you to some popular and lesser-known Japanese flavours and treats!
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 is commonly found in souvenir shops and often are flavoured with a local speciality. Discover more varieties of mochi in our blog ’10 Best Japanese Desserts’.
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 chocolate, cream and chestnut cream are common too. We’re 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 extremely 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 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 is 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. 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 Portuguese word 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 the melon pan, jumbo-sized melon pan and cream-filled melon pan. In Hiroshima, green melon pan is available with a cantaloupe cream filling!
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 before 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 favourites too. Below are some of the most popular snacks you can find in konbinis and supermarkets 24/7 across Japan.
Borubon Puchi – ボルボン プチ
We searched for a worthy replacement of our much loved British digestive biscuit and stumbled across a whole section of shelves dedicated to borubon puchi snacks. The product selection is made up of plenty of sweet or savoury varieties. In our opinion, these products aren’t talked about enough, and we would love to see them here in the UK. If you’re after some nibbly bits in Japan, we wholly recommend these. The dark roasted soybean wafers were our 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, pocky are commonly found in the biscuits or ‘world foods’ aisles of your local supermarket. These long chocolate-covered biscuits are very tasty, and come in many-a-flavour! Toppo are similar, but where Pocky are dipped in chocolate, Toppo instead are filled with chocolate – like a biscuity straw, if you will. Pocky is 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 more or less 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 and across the rest of the world – so why are they on this list? Ever since KitKat entered the Japanese market under its parent brand, Rowntrees, back in the ’70s, it became immensely popular and has grown to offer over 300 varieties! Matcha and strawberry-flavoured KitKats are among the most common. Still, you can also get your hands on flavours like Purple Sweet Potato, Wasabi, Azuki Bean, Blueberry Cheesecake, and Ume Sake!
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 and Japanese flavours 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. To discover more about traditional sweets and desserts, why not take a look at our blog ‘10 Best Japanese Desserts’?