The Fabulous Design Manuals for Japan's 19th-Century Sweets - Gastro Obscura
Our new kids' book is on sale! Shop now.

The Fabulous Design Manuals for Japan’s 19th-Century Sweets

Wagashi range from elegant to surprisingly modern.

A red peach-shaped <em>wagashi</em> dominates this page.
A red peach-shaped wagashi dominates this page. Public Domain

Across Japan, recipes for elegant wagashi sweets made from adzuki beans, mochi, and agar-agar have been passed down over generations. But that wasn’t always the case. After culinary infusions from ancient China and the Portuguese, wagashi crystallized into beloved sweet treats during the cultural maelstrom of the Edo period, between 1603 and 1868. Back then, confectioners experimented with nature motifs as well as modern-looking abstract patterns. Soon, there were so many designs that sweet-makers and customers alike needed a way to keep them straight.

Chestnuts and vegetables are also given the <em>wagashi</em> treatment.
Chestnuts and vegetables are also given the wagashi treatment. Public Domain

Enter the wagashi design book. These lavishly-illustrated volumes, which depict the breadth of colors, shapes, and designs possible to render in sweet form, are still preserved in Japanese libraries. In them, illustrators painted wagashi as delicately shaped bamboo shoots, chestnuts, or cherry blossoms, reflecting the changing of the seasons. Flat slabs of bean-paste yōkan bear bold designs and equally bold names, such as “Mountain Peaks at Dawn.” In these many books, such as one named the Onmushigashizu, designs were often inspired by classical poetry and literature.

The books allowed wagashi-makers to keep sweets consistent over generations. For example, the Fukushimaya wagashi shop in Tokyo still uses an 1867 manual created by their founder, and to this day recreate the exact designs painted on the pages. While new styles of wagashi are still being developed, even older styles look up-to-date, and are still just as delectable.

Guides to <em>wagashi</em> shapes are still in use today.
Guides to wagashi shapes are still in use today. Public Domain
Wagashi designs can even veer towards the abstract.
Wagashi designs can even veer towards the abstract. Public Domain
"Mountain Peaks at Dawn" shares page space with a <em>taijitu</em>, or yin-yang symbol.
“Mountain Peaks at Dawn” shares page space with a taijitu, or yin-yang symbol. Public Domain
A bamboo shoot shape makes for an elegant-looking sweet.
A bamboo shoot shape makes for an elegant-looking sweet. Public Domain
The <em>Onmushigashizu</em> features a rather egg-like design.
The Onmushigashizu features a rather egg-like design. Public Domain

Gastro Obscura covers the world’s most wondrous food and drink.
Sign up for our email, delivered twice a week.