Traditional Japanese sweets, known as "Wagashi", have features that reflect the season that they are produced in, and winter wagashi are no different. There is a gradient of winter climates in Japan, from the snowy landscapes in northern regions like Hokkaido, to more temperate climates further south in Kyushu. However, there is a uniform drop in temperature throughout Japan during the winter months, with several months of cold weather.
Winter Wagashi Features
The standout feature of winter wagashi is their color; white, as seen in rice cakes and powdered rice crackers. Meant to represent snow, these white wagashi are pretty to the eye and provide an obvious connection with winter. Also, rather than using seasonal ingredients as they are, wagashi during winter are commonly processed to create color and texture.
Winters in Japan can feel particularly cold, as materials used to build houses are different from those in Europe and the United States. In Japan, you still find thatched roofs and structures predominantly of wood, which are designed for the severe heat of summer and not for the cold of winter. Concrete houses, which grew significantly in number after World War II, also were not designed for the cold winter months, as central heating systems are rare in Japanese homes. As a result, winter mornings and evenings in Japan can get extremely cold. To stay comfortable, the Japanese have devised the kotatsu, an ingenious heated table that retains the heat with a large blanket under the table-top. The Japanese put their feet inside the kotatsu during the winter season to keep warm. A common scene is of a family eating mandarin oranges and Japanese sweets while chatting and relaxing. A more modern take on winter comfort are heated floor systems, which are becoming more common.
As the Japanese characters "雪平" suggests, "Seppei" are rice cakes that are as white as snow. The white dough is made by kneading pure white gyuhi and white bean paste, and then adding egg white to finish. Since it is a white dough, it is easy to add other colors and toppings. Seppei is often filled with red bean paste, but sometimes fruits are added. Depending on the season, some Seppei are decorated with plum blossoms or chestnut bean paste to create a spring or autumn motif. If you use pink Seppei to make wagashi with cherry blossoms or strawberries, you will quickly have a spring themed treat. Likewise, by using light blue or green jelly or agar, a wagashi with a summer feel is created.
Joyo-manju is a yeast bun made by steaming sweet bean paste and other ingredients in a skin made by kneading grated yam, and topped with flour and sugar. The reason why yams are used is because of their fluffy texture. The Kansai region, where Osaka and Kyoto are located, is famous for its flour-based cuisine and yams are used to make these dishes fluffier. When yams are used in manju, they give the buns an elegant texture and make them very palatable. The appearance of jyoyo-manju is simply white with a red bean paste filling. If you are in Japan during winter, you may also find rabbit shaped jyoyo-manju. This treat is a typical Japanese winter confectionery that is also visually appealing.
In the past, wagashi was a luxury food that was beyond the reach of the common people. The jyoyo-manju was no different, and although it has a long history it was primarily reserved for the enjoyment of the nobility. The name "Jyoyo-manju" itself has connotations of the higher class, with "Joyo" meaning "above" and "yo" meaning "to use" (the meaning of words in Japanese changes depending on the kanji character, so "jyou" and "yo" do not always have the same meaning as defined above). Incidentally, the current Jyoyo manju uses the kanji for "yam" and is simply recognized as "manju made of yam".
Kinton is a sweet Japanese confectionery made of boiled and mashed sweet potatoes, chestnuts and green beans. Kinton is said to have been introduced to Japan by a monk from China. The original form of the dish was similar to wontons of Chinese cuisine--a dough made of flour and water and filled with meat. Kinton was a special dish offered as court food during the Heian period (794-1192). The combination of red bean paste--made by boiling red beans with sugar--and the skin used in the original dish of kinton became the modern kinton as we know it today.
On top of the dough of the kinton is a layer of bean paste. The bean paste can be thin or thick, depending on the size of the mesh used. In Kyoto, kinton is called "chakin" to distinguish the difference in production method from kinton of other regions. There are wagashi shops that still exist in Kyoto today that have the proud history of making kinton for aristocracy for a long time. You may find that such shops get creative by adding color to the chestnut or sweet potato that is commonly used, or use completely different ingredients to make a paste that replaces red bean.
Karukan is a confectionery made from a batter of rice flour, sugar, yams and water. It is a wagashi native to the Kyushu region in southern Japan, and is now found in Tokyo and other cities. There is a theory that the origin of the name "Karukan" signifies a "light yokan", and some stores have started to combine yokan and Karukan into wagashi. The amount of yams produced in Japan varies from year to year, and so when there is a shortage of yam, the price of karukan tends to go up. To make this treat, the yams are grated, with sugar, water, and rice flour added to the mixture. The mixture is then steamed for about twenty minutes to produce the spongy cake. If you plan on filling the cake with red bean paste, it is better to prepare a firmer cake.
Karukan is said to have its origins in the former Satsuma domain in Kagoshima Prefecture (1686-1715). There is an active volcano called Sakurajima in Kagoshima Prefecture, which has deposited large amounts of volcanic ash since prehistory. This type of land is called a Shirasu Plateau; a dry land with low water retention. As a result, it is difficult for ordinary rice and vegetables to grow in this environment. As an alternative to rice and vegetables, the Satsuma clan grew a lot of yams, sweet potatoes, soybeans, and rapeseeds, which are resistant to drought and environmental disasters. They were also able to import sugar cane from neighboring Okinawa Prefecture. That's why the "karu-kan" was born using the raw materials of yams and sugar. To this day, karukan is often made in wagashi shops and homes in Kagoshima Prefecture. Similar Japanese sweets include "fukure-gashi" and "fukurikan" which are steamed buns made with brown sugar, baking soda and flour, and both are said to be based on karukan.
Hanabira-mochi is a wagashi that lines the counters of shops during the year-end and New Year holidays. It is a wagashi made by wrapping miso bean paste and burdock root in a rice cake with a pink colored center or an uiou cake. Instead of pink dough, it is sometimes accompanied by sweets that resemble flower petals. It is said that these ingredients are a representation of the famous New Year's "Osechi" cuisine. For your information, "uirou" is made by adding sugar and hot water to rice flour, molding it, and steaming it in a basket. Miso red bean paste is made with white miso and has an elegant sweetness. Burdock is also a plant native to foreign countries, but in Japan it is unique in that the roots are eaten. The burdock root is sweetened with syrup or sugar and cooked for the Hanabira-mochi.
Hanabira-mochi has its roots in the Heian period (794-1192), when a longevity ritual called "tooth setting ceremony" was held. But it was only during the Edo period (1603-1871), when Japanese sweets, including hanabira-mochi were made to represent this ceremony. It is a Japanese tradition to eat Hanabira-mochi to celebrate the New Year and wish for good health.
The culture of eating Hanabira-mochi is deeply rooted in the Kansai region, and there are many restaurants that serve it. If you are planning to visit the Kansai region during the year-end and New Year holidays, it might be a great chance to try Hanabira Mochi.
Celebrate the New Year with Winter Wagashi
Many winter wagashi have a more distinctive appearance and production method than wagashi of other seasons. You may have also noticed that many winter wagashi make use of yams, with jyoyo-manjyu as a representative example. There are also wagashi that make use of local ingredients in creative and colorful ways, such as the karukan. Wagashi are closely related to the specialties and history of each region of Japan. A person from Kagoshima prefecture may grow up eating karukan with brown sugar year-round, but this person would be surprised to find that shops in Tokyo do not usually carry karukan. Likewise, there are wagashi that are found in other regions but are completely absent from Kagoshima and Tokyo. Rice is one of the main crops in Japan, but there are places like Kagoshima where rice does not grow well. In such regions, rice-based wagashi were not practical, and so other methods developed using local ingredients. There are also many wagashi associated with old court events and Buddhist rituals. We learned that hanabira-mochi is inspired by the imperial court dishes of the Heian period and the Osechi dish eaten at New Year. If you ever have the chance, don't hesitate to celebrate the New Year with some of these winter wagashi that are so characteristic of Japan!