The History of Japanese Sweets

Berries and fruit began to be placed on leafs in great antiquity.

In the Yayoi period, there was mochi. It is called mochi from the image of the full moon. Mochi was used as a substitute for the meal’s main starch and as offerings are festivals and ceremonies.

In the Heian period, envoys to China returned with “kara-kudamono” (Chinese Fruit) which was a type of mochi made from rice, wheat, and soybeans, to which salt was added and it was fried in oil. Unsurprisingly, this was used as offerings to the gods in festivals and ceremonies. In the same period (7th cent.), tea was introduced from China.

In the Kamakura period, the habit of drinking tea in zen monks’ lifestyle was established. As a part of this, there was a simple small meal called tenshin followed by snacks (oyatsu). The word tenshin comes from the meaning of adding one point (ten) to the heart (shin). A type of tenshin was atsumono written with the same character as youkan (lit. Sheep atsumono). Atsumono is basically a broth made of the meat of sheep, but Japan merely took the idea of meat and replaced it with plant based steamed dishes, it seems. In this period, manju filled with meat or vegetables were also introduced as a part of tenshin. After, this became the adzuki bean filled manjuu.

In the Muramachi period, when the close connection between samurai society and zen began, chanoyu was developed. Sweets for the chaseki were developed along with chado. In that period, nuts and berries, abalone, mochi with matsutake mushrooms boiled in miso, and roast chestnuts were served. After a long time, this type of cooking came to be called Cha-no-sakana.

From the Azuchi Momoyama period, the use of sugar increased. In the so called Southern Barbarian Trade, foods which used a lot of sugar and eggs like castella, bouro, toffee (arufeitto), and confeitto were introduced. However, these were still rare foods so they were not common items.

In the Edo period, wagashi reached their perfection and in Tempou 10 (1839) the “Encyclopedia of Sweets New and Old” was published. In it, illustrations and recipes for 200 types of steamed cakes, dry sweets, and hard candies were written and the foundations of today’s wagashi were completed.
In Kyoto which has the Imperial Palace, the kenjou-gashi (abbreviated to jou-gashi) “Goyou Kashi” became popular and jou-gashi stores, manju stores, and mochi stores each had their own businesses it seems. In Edo, the seat of the bakafu, sweets shops advanced their Kyoto style sweets and they became popular. However, sugar was still a rare commodity sold by chemists.

It was only in the late Edo period that the common people could enjoy sweets. The wasabon sugar of shikoku was invented. The cultivation of sugar cane started and the manufacture of sugar became popular. Sweets started the be made as souvenirs for traveling guests staying at inns and tea houses or visiting shrines.

In the Meiji period, industry and the way of living became westernized. Stores started selling in large quantities and western-style sweets stores increased.

In the Taisho and Showa period, wagashi was established throughout the whole country. Also, meaning wagashi stores turned into western-style sweets shop. Unfortunately, during the Second World War, sugar was unobtainable and many shops shut down.

After that, sugar was distributed, peace returned, and the knowledge of chagashi become wide spread with the popularization of chado, very much like it still is today.