“Wagashi” and the Japanese Tradition of Hospitality

Culture Lifestyle Food and Drink

In the last few years, the English term “sweets” has come to be used in Japanese as a hold-all term referring to all kinds of cakes and confectionary. But it seems a shame to lump the Japanese wagashi traditionally served with tea into the same category. They have a special role in social ritual that makes them quite different.

This spring, I took part in a round-table on the subject of traditional Japanese confectionary culture with the proprietors and artisans of some of Kyoto’s oldest traditional wagashi shops. The colors and forms of the wagashi are inspired by motifs celebrating the beauties of nature. The artistry and attention to detail that goes into making them is truly remarkable. The artisans who create these edible works of art somehow manage to impart into the wagashi the very essence of the season’s mountains, fields, rivers, and lakes. You can almost feel the wind and light of the time of year. The artisans have an uncanny sensitivity to nature, and live in intimate proximity with the changing seasons.

During the round table, one wagashi maker explained that “Traditional wagashi are much more than simply a sweet snack. There are part of a culture of hospitality, with its precise etiquette and traditions.” In Kyoto, the host washes down the area in front of the house and lights incense in the entrance porch in anticipation of a visit. The ground mustn’t be either too wet or too dry when the guest arrives. If the incense is lit too soon, the scent will have disappeared by the time the guest arrives. But if the smoke is still rising when the guest arrives, that is a discourtesy too. Timing is essential. The host arranges a selection of seasonal flowers, and hangs a scroll with some kind of relevance to the season, the expected guest, or the topic to be discussed.

Wagashi and the Aesthetics of Minimalism

When the guest arrives the host serves tea, and then it is time for the wagashi to make their appearance. Seasonal motifs are used in the wagashi, as well as elegant poetic names. The guest will normally start by admiring the beauty of the design, and then ask about the name of the wagashi. This provides a topic for conversation. Many of the names allude to lines from classical literature. Finally, the guest raises the wagashi to her lips. First one enjoys the wagashi with the eyes. Next comes the imaginative enjoyment of the allusions evoked by the name—only then does one enter the world of flavor. The wagashi is not something to be scoffed down as soon as it appears. It is a sophisticated pleasure for mature adults, resonant with the empty space of the Japanese minimalist aesthetic.

Cherry Blossoms Against the Sunlight

The final stage in the ritual of hospitality is the farewell. In Kyoto, it is common in private homes and restaurants alike for the host to remain on the threshold until the guests are out of sight. Hospitality in Japan is the crystallization of many aspects of Japanese culture: courtesy, consideration, and respect for others, along with an esthetic enjoyment of nature and the changing seasons, and a culture that esteems empty space. As part of such an intricate culture of hospitality, it doesn’t seem right to refer to traditional wagashi with a common catch-all term like “sweets.”

One spring day almost 20 years ago, I came across a beautiful example of the Japanese confectioner’s art in a traditional old shop in Kyoto. It was made of sweet white bean paste wrapped in a soft mochi coating called gyūhi. I asked about the name. “Urazakura,” the owner told me. Cherry blossoms against the backlit sun. He explained that the pink color of the confection was reminiscent of the sunlight shining translucent through cherry blossom petals. Such subtlety and depth! In the years passed since, I have often remembered the hidden beauty of those cherry blossoms against the sunlight, symbol of Japanese beauty.

(Originally written in Japanese on May 8, 2013.)

Kyoto seasons Haiku wagashi