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Delve into the sweeter side of one of the world’s most beloved cuisines with these Japanese desserts, and embark on a culinary-themed expedition of the senses like no other.
The desserts of Japan dazzle with their unique composition of colors, textures, and decorations while their diverse and creative flavor combinations mean there’s simply something for everyone to enjoy.
So together, let’s explore a truly magical side of Japanese cuisine through 21 of its most popular and celebrated desserts.
1 – Dango – 団子 (Sticky Rice Cake Balls on a Stick)
Dango is a popular street food, made from a mixture of different types of rice flour – uruchi rice (non glutinous rice) flour and glutinous rice flour.
This sweet and wholesome sticky rice cake is usually served in sets of 3-5 on a skewer. There is a wide variety of dango available such as Sanshoku (triple color) dango, Kinako dango (dango coated in kinako(roasted soybean) powder), and Yomogi dango (dango made with Japanese mugwort).
However, arguably the most popular variation of dango is Midarashi dango, a sweet soy sauce glazed dango that is renowned for its intense sweet and savory flavor. This is simply a dessert you have to get your teeth into!
2 – Dorayaki – どらやき (Sweet Red Bean Paste Sandwiched Between Pancakes)
Dorayaki is a dessert of anko (sweet red bean paste) sandwiched between two fluffy, honey-like flavored pancakes. Some manga or anime fans may know the name from the widely popular manga series Doraemon, as it’s the character’s favorite sweet.
However, the word “dora” means “gong,” the famous percussion instrument, and it is believed that the dessert is named as such, due to its circular shape.
Nowadays, a variety of fillings are available for this beloved dish, including custard cream, sweet potato paste, and even matcha paste.
3 – Castella – カステラ (Japanese Honey Sponge Cake)
Castella is a Japanese honey sponge cake, dating back over 400 years. The cake was first brought to Nagasaki, a famous trading port city, by Portuguese merchants in the 16th century. The name is derived from Portuguese Pão de Castela, meaning “bread from Castile.”
Ovens did not exist during that time in Japan, so the locals invented a coal-fired kiln called a “Hikigama (引き釜)” to make Castella.
The cake batter is made from a mixture of four basic ingredients: flour, eggs, honey, and sugar. Castella is sold in long boxes and served cut into slices, often with green tea.
4 – Daifuku – 大福 (Mochi Balls Filled with Sweet Bean Paste)
Daifuku is a type of mochi (glutinous rice cake) usually filled with anko (sweet red bean paste) or shiro-an (sweet white bean paste). It is one of the most popular foods to buy from Wagashi (traditional Japanese confectionery) shops.
Daifuku was used to be called Harabuto mochi (thick belly rice cake) due to its filling nature, but in time the name was changed to Daifuku mochi as the word “Daifuku” not only means “big/thick”, but also “great luck.”
Nowadays, many variations of Daifuku are available, including Fruit Daifuku (anko or shiro-an with fruits inside) and Ice cream Daifuku.
5 – Yōkan – 羊羹 (Confection Made from Sweet Bean Paste)
Yōkan (羊羹) is one of Japan’s oldest sweets, traditionally made from anko (sweet red bean paste) or shiro-an (sweet white bean paste), agar jelly, and sugar. Today, however, a version of Yōkan made from sweet potatoes, chestnuts, and matcha has become hugely popular.
A rich and thick jelly-like dessert, there are in essence two main types of Yōkan. The first, Neri Yōkan, is the most common. Meaning “kneaded,” it has a thicker, firmer texture, is prepared as large blocks, and served and eaten as slices.
Mizu Yōkan, meaning “water” on the other hand, has a far more liquid-like consistency and is often sold in cups and eaten with a spoon.
6 – Karukan – かるかん (Steamed Yam Cake)
Karukan is a sweet steamed bun, originating from Kagoshima Prefecture. It came to be during the rule of the Satsuma Domain (1686-1715) when yams, the main ingredient of karukan, were in abundance throughout the region.
The word “karu” means “light”, and “Yōkan” is a confection made from a sweet bean paste (see above), hence the dish was referred to as a lighter version of Yōkan.
The wholesome dish is made from a combination of rice flour, grated Japanese yam, water, and sugar. The mixture is kneaded, then steamed, creating an elastic and sweet white sponge.
Originally, it was served without filling. In time, however, Karukan with an anko (sweet red bean) filling became very popular.
7 – Monaka – もなか (Sweet Red Bean Paste Sandwiched Between Wafers)
Monaka is a type of wagashi (traditional Japanese sweets) consisting of anko (sweet red bean paste) sandwiched between two thin mochi wafers.
The wafers have a delightfully crispy texture, and come in a variety of shapes, including squares, flowers, seashells, and a wide range of animals!
Traditionally, monaka are filled with anko. However, there are a variety of fillings available nowadays, including chestnut paste, green tea paste, cream cheese, and everyone’s favorite: ice cream!
8 – Japanese Cheesecake – チーズケーキ
Japanese cheesecake (also called soufflé-style cheesecake) has a much lighter, airy texture than western-style cheesecake, beloved for its mousse-like consistency.
The original recipe was created by Japanese chef Tomotaro Kuzuno, who was inspired by Käsekuchen (German cheesecake) during a trip to Berlin in the 1960s.
Japanese cheesecake is made with cream cheese, butter, sugar, and eggs, and it has a similar texture to that of chiffon cake or soufflé. This is because the cake mixture is made by whipping egg white and egg yolk separately and baking the dish in a bain-marie.
Japanese cheesecake is a staple dessert on menus in cafes, bakeries, and many family restaurants across Japan.
9 – Taiyaki – たい焼き (Fish-Shaped Cake)
Taiyaki is made up of two words: “Tai (たい／鯛),” meaning “snapper,” and “Yaki (焼き)” meaning “baked”, making this snapper-shaped waffle and wildly popular street food more than aptly named.
Watching street food vendors prepare this delicious snack can be just as enjoyable as eating it. Once a regular pancake or waffle batter has been prepared, it is poured into a two-sided open fish-shaped mold.
To one side, a wide range of delicious fillings is added, and then the batter in either half of the mold is cooked, before the mold is closed shut, fusing the two sides of the snapper-snaped treat together.
The traditional filling for Taiyaki is anko (sweet red bean paste), but today there are a wide variety of fillings available, including chocolate, caramel, custard cream, apple sauce, and even savory fillings like cheese curry!
10 – Daigaku Imo – 大学いも (Candied Sweet Potatoes)
Daigaku Imo is a dish of candied sweet potatoes, that is popular at food stands and school festivals during fall and winter when the sweet potatoes are in season.
The wholesome candy is made of deep-fried Japanese purple-skinned sweet potatoes, that are cut into wedges and glazed with caramelized sugar syrup.
It is a simple and delicious snack that is crunchy on the outside and fluffy on the inside. Daigaku Imo means “college potato,” with its name coming from the fact sweet potatoes were a popular snack at universities in Tokyo during the early 1900s, due to their nutritious value, filling nature, and abundance.
11 – Sakura Mochi – 桜餅 (Sweet Pink Mochi with Sweet Red Bean Paste Filling)
Sakura means “cherry blossoms”, beautifully describing Sakura mochi, which is made from sweet pink mochi (sweet rice or glutinous rice) with an anko (sweet red bean paste) filling, wrapped in a pickled cherry blossom leaf.
The style and preparation of Sakura mochi differs depending on region, but there are two major types: the Kanto-style and the Kansai-style.
The Kanto-style dish originates from Tokyo, and uses shiratama-ko (rice flour) in the preparation of the mochi. The Kansai-style however, from Osaka Region, instead uses dōmyōji-ko (glutinous rice flour).
Sakura mochi is very popular during spring, particularly at cherry blossom viewing parties (Hanami) and on Girl’s Day (Hina Matsuri: March 3rd).
12 – Rakugan – 落雁 (Dried Japanese Sugar Candies)
Rakugan is made by pressing sugar, water, starch syrup, soybean flour, and other flours in traditional wooden molds, known as Kashigata(菓子型).
The rich candy comes in many different colors and shapes, usually reflecting seasonal or regional themes, such as flowers of the four seasons, leaves, cranes, and sea breams.
Rakugan is easily found at supermarkets and department stores all year round, and is often served at tea ceremonies. It is also used as an offering at Buddhist events, such as the Bon Festival in August.
13 – Japanese Fruit Sandwich – フルーツサンド
A Japanese fruit sandwich, usually called “fruit sando (フルーツサンド),” is a chilled sandwich filled with whipped cream and fresh fruits such as strawberries, bananas, and kiwi berries.
Shokupan, which is a fluffy and light traditional Japanese milk bread, is used in this dish. Once prepared, the crusts are cut off, and the sandwich is cut in half or quarters, to showcase the colorful fruits and cream filling inside!
A heavenly combination, these fruit sandwiches are one of the most popular convenience store sweet treats across Japan.
14 – Anmitsu – あんみつ (Japanese Style Parfait)
Anmitsu is made from a mixture of boiled sweet beans, anko (sweet red bean paste), and agar cubes, which is a white translucent jelly made from red algae.
It comes with a small pot of mitsu (sweet black syrup) to pour onto the dish just before eating. Anmitsu is usually served in a bowl or cup with small balls of Shiratama dango (mochi made by glutinous rice flour), and a variety of fruits, including cherries, pineapple chunks, and mikan (Japanese orange).
There is a wide range of variations of Anmitsu to try, including dishes served with kinako (roasted soybean) powder and ice cream on top. This is a Japanese dish of sheer indulgence!
15 – Kuri Kinton – 栗金団 (Mashed Sweet Potato Mixed with Sweet Chestnuts)
Kurikinton is a dish of Satsumaimo (Japanese sweet potatoes) mashed with cooked chestnuts, preserved in sweet syrup.
Japanese sweet potatoes have a purple skin and light yellow tuber. These potatoes are sweeter than regular sweet potatoes, and pair wonderfully with the candied chestnuts.
“Kuri (栗)” means “chestnuts” and “Kinton(金団)” means “Golden Dango/Futon”, reference to the dishes resemblance to gold coins.
Kuri kinton is one of the staple dishes of the New Year’s (Osechi Ryori) feast in Japan, as it is believed that eating the dish will bring business prosperity and financial fortune.
16 – Warabi mochi – わらび餅 (Jelly-like Mochi Covered with Kinako Powder)
Unlike regular mochi made from glutinous rice, Warabi mochi is made from warabiko (bracken starch) and covered in kinako (sweet toasted soybean) powder. Oftentimes, it is drizzled with kuromitsu syrup, a Japanese dark sugar syrup, to add sweetness to the light, jelly-like cold and chewy mochi.
This dessert is a popular summer treat, especially in the Kansai and Okinawa regions. It has been eaten for centuries, dating all the way back to the Heian Period from 794 to 1185.
Warabiko is traditionally made from warabi, which is a native wild plant. As warabi can be very expensive, often katakuriko (potato starch) is instead used as a cheaper substitute.
17 – Nerikiri – 練り切り (Wagashi Made with Sweet White Bean Paste and Sweet Rice Flour)
Nerikiri is made of shiro-an (sweet white bean paste), sugar, sweet rice flour or gyūhi (a type of mochi), and water. It has a dense, clay-like consistency, and is commonly molded either by hand, or with wooden molds to make shapes such as flowers, fruits, and animals.
Nerikiri is a type of Japanese sweet that is classified as “namagashi (生菓子)” which contains 40% or more water, and Nerikiri is considered to be a highly artistic namagashi.
It is often paired with green tea and served at tea ceremonies and celebratory events. You can also find it at department stores and Wagashi shops.
18 – Mizu Manjū – 水まんじゅう (Jelly Cake Made with Kuzu/Arrowroot)
Manju (まんじゅう/饅頭) is a traditional Japanese flour-based pastry, made with flour, rice powder, kuzu (arrowroot), and buckwheat, filled with anko (sweet red bean paste).
“Mizu (水)” means “water”, and unlike regular Manjū, Mizu Manjū is made from kuzu starch, which gives the cake a translucent exterior, similar to a crystal ball, with a wobbly, jelly-like consistency!
Traditionally, anko is used as a filling, but there is now a wide range of variations available, including matcha green tea paste, shiro-an (sweet white bean paste), and even kuri kinton (mashed sweet potato mixed with sweet chestnuts). Served chilled, it is hugely popular during the hot summer months.
19 – Botamochi – ぼたもち (Sweet Rice Balls)
Botamochi are sweet rice balls covered in an anko coating. The rice balls are made from a mixture of both glutinous and regular rice, which is first soaked in water for up to two hours. The rice mixture is then cooked, shaped into balls, and coated with anko.
Botamochi is commonly eaten during Ohigan (お彼岸), a Buddhist one-week holiday to honor ancestors (which is celebrated in spring and autumn equinoxes), and it is also often used as an offering to ancestors.
A truly unique thing about this sweet dish is that its name changes depending on the season. In the spring, it is called Botamochi, after the spring flower “botan (牡丹 peony or paeony).” Then, during the fall, its name changes to Ohagi, derived from “hagi,” a Japanese bush clover that blooms throughout the season.
20 – Ningyo-Yaki – 人形焼 (Baked Doll Cakes)
Ningyo-yaki, meaning “baked dolls,” traditionally come in the shape of the Shichifukujin (七福神: Seven Lucky Gods) and Bunraku Ningyo (文楽人形: Bunraku Puppets), which are used in Bunraku, the Japanese traditional puppet theatre.
However, nowadays, Ningyo Yaki is also available in a variety of manga or anime character shapes, such as Pokémon, Disney characters, and Doraemon, among others.
Ningo-yaki is a small Castella cake (Japanese honey sponge cake) filled with anko and is a popular dessert choice at department stores and Wagashi shops.
21 – Japanese Souffle Pancakes – スフレパンケーキ
Japanese souffle pancakes are a wildly popular type of pancake, made in a similar vein to soufflé. The ingredients for the pancakes are similar to regular pancakes, but with soufflé pancakes, the egg yolks and egg whites are first separated, then the egg whites are whipped with sugar and turned into a meringue. This is then mixed with a batter made from the egg yolks before the pancakes are cooked.
Unlike regular pancakes, Japanese soufflé pancakes are incredibly fluffy, jiggly, and soft, almost like edible clouds! Japanese souffle pancakes are usually served at higher-end cafés, and less so everyday cafes and restaurants. Hence, many Japanese choose to make them at home.
Japanese Desserts Summary
Mesmeric decadence, melt-in-mouth textures, and mind-blowing flavors all lay in wait when you immerse yourself into the truly incredible world of Japanese desserts.
From restaurants to street food vendors, department stores to supermarkets, any trip to Japan simply isn’t complete with seeking out and trying as many of these unique and wonderous desserts as you can.
These are some of the most popular Japanese desserts you should definitely seek out and look for on a future trip to Japan. Whether you’re looking for crazy, off-the-wall flavors, a sweet dish with a wonderful sticky consistency, or a refreshing treat to enjoy in the summer sun, traditional Japanese desserts have it all, and then some.
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Author: Izumi Taneda is a freelance content writer, blogger, and Japanese translator based in Tokyo, Japan. After spending a decade living in Los Angeles, she returned to Japan as a translator and interpreter before moving into content and creative writing on a full-time basis.
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