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Japanese Confectioners: Wagashi-ya and Dagashi-ya

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Okashi, Wagashi, Dagashi… What’s the difference?

Okashi (お菓子) is the general term for Japanese sweets and snacks. Wagashi and dagashi are both types of okashi. Other, more modern types of snacks are also considered okashi, like Kit Kats, Tokyo Banana, and Jagabee potato sticks.

Wagashi (和菓子) are traditional Japanese sweets. You might notice that the term has the same kanji 菓子, “kashi”, as the previous “okashi”, a term which means snack, or candy, but with an added “wa” 和 meaning Japanese. So wagashi are literally “Japanese candy”.  Wagashi are often made with red bean (adzuki bean), agar-agar, and glutinous rice flour. Some common wagashi are daifuku (mochi wrapped around red bean paste), yokan (red bean jelly), and anmitsu (agar-based jelly cubes).

Dagashi (駄菓子) are the equivalent of American penny candy. The “da” 駄 of dagashi translates to “low grade” or “negligible”, so they are “low-grade candy.” Dagashi may be cheaper than wagashi… but that doesn’t mean they’re not just as delicious! Some of Japan’s most popular snacks are dagashi, snacks like Ramune, Umaibo, and Karinto (fried dough coated in brown sugar).

A Short History of Japanese Confectioners

Sweets in Japan began with mochi, sticky rice cakes. Mochi are one of the oldest processed foods in Japan, as they were brought into the country from China during the Jomon period (14,000–300 BCE). However, it was during the peace of the Edo era that Japanese confectionery really began to flourish, with the development of wagashi. Many wagashi were created to accompany the increasingly popular tea ceremony. These sweets had simple flavors, meant to go well with matcha and green tea, and were elaborately decorated based on a complex seasonal calendar.

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During the Edo era, another kind of sweets were also invented: dagashi. Dagashi were a kind of candy made of relatively inexpensive ingredients, like malt sugar, starch, and corn. They were the commoners’ version of a popular snack called jogashi, which was made of expensive white sugar. Later, the term dagashi began to include all kinds of cheap, but popular, snacks, giving us the many kinds of delicious dagashi of today!

Wagashi-ya: Traditional Japanese Confectioners

When you step into a high-level wagashi-ya (wagashi store), you are surrounded by an atmosphere of elegance. Fresh flowers stand in vases, traditional Japanese shoji paper filters a soft light, which falls on rows upon rows of sparkling jellies and perfectly decorated manju. Often, you will be invited to sit, offered green tea, and a sample of one of their sweets to enjoy before you browse. These are not “candy shops” in the normal sense  —  they are closer to high-end French patisseries, and many have histories dating back over 100 years. Although the atmosphere of a wagashi-ya is elegant, most wagashi are reasonably priced, a single piece can go from anywhere between 100 to 1000 yen. Some stores also have the option to enjoy their wagashi on-site, accompanied by green tea as a set, while sitting in a peaceful tearoom. Most wagashi-ya are famous for a single type of wagashi, or serve only regional specialties. So, if you want to sample different kinds of wagashi, it’s worth it to visit many different wagashi-ya during your travels!

Dagashi-ya: Retro Japanese Snack Sellers

Dagashi-ya are the complete opposite of the serene wagashi-ya. These shops are bright with colorful packaging, shelves ready to burst with hundreds of kinds of popular snacks, and the shouts of rowdy children.  Although dagashi have been around since the Edo era, dagashi-ya were the most popular during the Showa era (from the 1950s to early 1980s), as stores where the children of a growing middle class could spend their pocket money. Hence, the loud packaging of the snacks, designed to appeal to children, and their low price tag (sometimes as cheap as just 10 yen!) Some snacks would even include random lucky prizes or toys as a bonus. If you want to learn about the tastiest types of dagashi, be sure to check out our complete guide to dagashi!

Today, many popular dagashi, like senbei, are sold in supermarkets and convenience stores, so dagashi-ya are on the decline. Although dagashi-ya are less frequent, some still exist, as a nostalgic reminder of a time before the ubiquitous “konbini”. They are often recreated or preserved as tourist attractions, for example, the Odaiba Itchome Shopping Arcade in Decks Tokyo Beach Mall. They sell snacks that are no longer sold mainstream, like candy cigarettes, and dice caramel. Visiting a dagashi-ya feels like a brief trip back in time to a bygone era, and is a great chance to buy some delicious types of snacks you can’t find on normal supermarket shelves!

Have you ever visited a dagashi-ya or wagashi-ya? What was your experience like?

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