Wagashi Wakaranai: The Impossible Sweets Challenge

I never thought I would have such strong feelings about gelatin, but as I stood in front of the posh wagashi store in Ginza I cursed the misleading Jell-O jiggler commercials of my childhood, lulling me into a false sense of security. Surely gelatin isn’t that difficult to work with, right?

Spoiler alert: It was very difficult. 

After my last epic failure trying to recreate intricate French dishes based only on photos, I was challenged once again with another intimidating task: wagashi deceptively simple and painstakingly detailed traditional Japanese sweets. 

The challenge was the same: Using only the photos, I must recreate three wagashi. I’m not allowed to look up recipes online or in cookbooks. Thankfully, the website that had the photos also had a brief description of each sweet, giving me some helpful clues on how to make them. 

I broke up the project into steps. First, find and purchase the ingredients and tools I need to make the wagashi. Second, make the sweets. Third, take my creations to the Minamoto Kitchoan wagashi shop in Ginza, and do a side-by-side taste comparison with the professionally made sweets.

Identifying the Ingredients

Before I could get started in the kitchen, I studied the photos and their descriptions to learn more about what I was attempting to make. This didn’t take too long, as the first two were pretty straight forward.

First, was a fancy-looking grape covered in what I assumed was a thin layer of mochi and sugar. The grape listed on the website is a Muscat of Alexandria. I figured this one would be the easiest to make.

Photo credit to Kitchoan

Next was a peach. At first I thought it was a type of daifuku, or a sweet made from stuffing mochi with red bean paste or fruit, but on closer inspection I realized it was actually a peach covered in jelly. This was just the beginning of my gelatin-based woes. 

Photo credit to Kitchoan

Finally, I tackled the most challenging photo. A perfectly square, beautifully detailed Japanese koi pond made from… yokan? The only ingredients mentioned on the website were yokan and lemon. Like many traditional sweets, yokan is made from red adzuki beans, but I had no idea how to go from that, to this. So I made a few guesses the colorful elements (the fish and leaves) were probably made of yokan, while the clear part consisted of gelatin. 

Photo credit to Kitchoan

Buying the Ingredients

My first trip was to a large supermarket to seek out one of the key ingredients I needed to succeed: gelatin. I was thrilled to find that the box of gelatin had instructions on the back, so I would at least have some guidance on how to prepare it. The photo on the front also gave me a clue of how to create the white layer of the wagashi koi pond. 

My next stop was Daiso, the popular Japanese 100-yen store, to pick up some tools. While they didn’t have the maple leaf shape I was hoping for, I was able to pick up some small cookie cutters in the shape of playing card suits. I figured the spade and clubs looked enough like leaves to work. I also grabbed a square dish to act as a gelatin mold. 

Then it was time for a bit of a cheat while my challenge was to recreate the wagashi, I had no idea how yokan was made, only that it was made from beans. So I walked around the omiyage (gift) shops in the department store next to the station, studying the yokan in hopes of a clue. Instead, I ended up buying three small portions of mizu yokan one for each of the colors I needed. I tried to ask the staff if the shape would hold when I cut into it, which caused a great amount of confusion for everyone involved. 

Finally, it was time to go to the fancy fruit shop. If you live in or have visited Japan, you may be familiar with these shops, famous for their incredibly expensive fruit. Usually purchased as gifts, I was excited to buy something from them. I usually just walk by and wonder “who can afford to buy such expensive fruit?”, but today, that someone was me. 

Unfortunately, they did not have the exact brand of muscat grapes I needed. I settled for a different variety, and chose the least expensive option Shine Muscat grapes for 3,000 yen. These fancy grapes are by far the most expensive grapes I’ve ever purchased, and these were the low-grade option the higher grades run 3,5008,000 yen a bunch. That means for 8,000 yen, each individual grape would cost approximately 400 yen to eat. I couldn’t help imagining what kind of person eats 8,000-yen grapes their life must be fabulous. I also wondered, how does one meet someone who eats 8,000-yen grapes, and are they single? 

The grapes were not my only opulent purchase, I also had to buy a peach. I ended up purchasing two peaches, because I figured I might need a backup in case I messed up. Each peach cost 1,200 yen; not quite as shocking as the grapes but still a pretty significant price for a single fruit.

Making the Wagashi

Now armed with all my ingredients, it was time to make the wagashi. 

I started with the grapes, since I figured those would be the simplest to make. A rather unfortunate attempt to make mochi without a recipe left me with a goopy mess, and I had to admit defeat and return to the grocery store for some premade mochi. This time, I attempted to treat the mochi like sugar cookie dough. I used my rolling pin from a previous udon making experience to attempt to roll out the mochi into a thin layer. 

Alas, mochi is not sugar cookie dough, and it is very sticky. To keep it from sticking to the rolling pin, I added flour. After rolling the mochi as thin as I could manage, I shook off the excess flour and attempted to wrap the flattened mochi around the grape. Shockingly, the mochi wouldn’t stick to the grape, because it was covered in flour, and the grape’s pristinely shiny skin was also pretty slippery. Recalling my previous mochi making disaster, I wet my fingers with some water and proceeded to transform my thinly rolled mochi into a sticky mess that attached to everything but the grape I was attempting to cover. 

This was supposed to be the easy one. 

I managed to wrangle three grapes into their mochi blankets and topped them with a generous sprinkle of sugar. I set them aside and declared them finished I had bigger fish to fry… or suspend in gelatin.

I moved on to making the peach wagashi. Even cutting the peach proved to be a challenge as I managed to somehow cut the pit in half as well. After some digging with a knife and some careful peeling, I was able to de-pit and skin the peach halves. They were now ready for their gelatin casings.

I placed the peach halves into mugs. My conbini novelty character mugs happen to be the perfect size for the peaches, which is great, because the thing about gelatin is that it has to have some sort of mold to set in a process I was going to become way too familiar with. 

I prepared the gelatin according to the instructions on the back of the box, which is pretty simple. One packet of powder mixed with 250ml of hot water. To test out the gelatin, I poured the first batch into the mold (the square glass dish from Daiso) meant for the final wagashi, the koi pond. I added lemon juice for flavor, since lemon was one of the two ingredients listed on the website. I figured I would attempt to make it upside down so that when I turned it over and released it from the mold, it would be right side up. The first layer, or the top one, was poured into the dish. I set it in the fridge to create my first of five layers. 

I prepared another packet of gelatin. After waiting a while for it to cool, I poured the mixture over my peach halves. I put the mugs into the fridge and hoped for the best.

It occurred to me that I had no idea how long gelatin takes to set. I did a quick Google search, and to my horror realized it takes at least two hours. That would be fine, if I hadn’t procrastinated making the final wagashi. I estimated I would need to make about five layers of gelatin to create the fancy Japanese koi pond. By the time I had put the first layer in the fridge it was around 8pm.

It was going to be a long night. 

Resigned, I got to work on creating the fish and leaves floating in the wagashi pond. I quickly realized mizu yokan did not work very well with cookie cutters, but I had thankfully anticipated that and had purchased regular red and green yokan from the grocery store as a backup. I sliced the regular yokan in half and attempted to carve out the fish. They looked more like smashed goldfish than elegant koi, but it would have to do. I used my playing card cookie cutters to create “leaves” out of the green yokan. I also managed to make a few yellow leaves from the mizu yokan; the extra water used to make mizu yokan meant it barely held its shape after being cut.

Thankfully, the first gelatin layer in the fridge had set, and I was able to add my yokan cut outs to the mold. I prepared yet another bowl of gelatin, and gently poured the mixture on top of my cutouts. The fish and leaves were swept around in the new layer of liquid gelatin but kept their shapes. That was good enough for me.

Now it was just a waiting game. I spent the next two hours watching Netflix and chastising myself for not starting the project earlier in the day. By the time the layer of fish and leaves had set, it was already midnight. I added the red azuki beans and coconut (because I could not identify what the white chunks in the photo were, so why not coconut). However, this time as I began to prepare the gelatin, I managed to rip open the packet of powder in a way that caused it to explode over my entire stove top. How fun!

This time, I added just a half layer of gelatin, since only half of the powder had made it into the pot. 

Two hours later, grumpy but too stressed to sleep, I added yet another layer of gelatin. It felt like it was taunting me, binding itself to my lack of sleep like it bound together the many elements inside my gelatinous Frankenstein wagashi. 

Finally, around 3:30am I mixed the final layer of gelatin. This time, thanks to a hint printed on the gelatin box, I mixed the powder with 50ml of hot water and 180ml of yogurt to create the final white layer that made up the bottom of the wagashi pond. I poured in this layer, and only spilled half of it on its journey back into the fridge. I then went directly to bed, plagued by gelatin-based anxiety dreams.

A few hours later, I woke up and hurried to check on the status of the gelatin. To my delight, it looked like everything had set successfully. Now my next challenge was getting the jelly wagashi out of the molds. 

I set the peach mug into a basin of warm water to loosen the gelatin from the side of the mug. After five minutes, and with the aid of a spatula, I was able to get the peach jellies out. I was surprised that the peach juice had started to be sucked up by the gelatin, giving the jelly a slightly orange color. I discarded the excess gelatin and put the peaches into a plastic container, ready to be transported.

With the grapes and peaches ready to go, I was feeling much better. Now all that was left was the big jelly pond. I soaked the glass mold in hot water, and after five minutes flipped it upside down and onto a plate. Thankfully, it slipped right out of the mold. It worked! It was more like a swamp than a pond, but I still made it! I was so relieved. 

… Until I tried to put it into a container to take it to the wagashi shop. It slid right off the plate, running into the side of the container, flopped over on itself and exploded. I cursed at the layers I had labored over all night as they slid apart into a mash of disappointment.

I couldn’t wait to show this to the professional wagashi artisans in Ginza. 

At the Shop

I loitered in a shoe store next to the wagashi shop in an attempt to cool down in the AC. Between the lack of sleep, nerves, and the relentless heat of Tokyo in July, I looked more like a sweaty bag lady than someone going to a posh traditional wagashi shop. 

After feigning interest in 200,000-yen high heels, I managed to cool down enough to be ready to enter the wagashi shop. An imposing, tall building in the middle of the most fashionable and expensive neighborhood of Ginza, Minamoto Kitchoan is a beautiful store. I was shown to the elevator and traveled to the fourth floor, labeled the “special room.”

I was greeted by Alexis Nishizawa, an elegant and modelesque employee. Her kind demeanor and friendly attitude put me at ease until I had to place my creations on the table next to the perfectly packaged ones made by Minamoto Kitchoan. 

The Taste Test 

As I plated my creations, it was painfully obvious how lumpy they looked. I could only hope that they would at least be edible. I became even more nervous when Alexis decided to invite her boss to the tasting.

First, they tried the grapes. Luckily, I had also tried one at home so I knew while they weren’t great, they weren’t terrible either. Alexis said they were cute and tasty. She is very generous. 

Next up were the peach halves. I sliced one into bite-size pieces, and they each tried one. They noted that the peach was fresh, and that the gelatin had hardly any flavor at all. At that moment, I had a terrible realization unlike Jell-O mix in the U.S., Japanese powder gelatin doesn’t include sugar. So, the jelly was just that jelly texture with no flavor. The man recommended that the jelly be sweet, since it was, of course, supposed to be sweet. 

Finally, they tried my reconstructed pond wagashi. I scooped out spoonfuls of the destroyed gelatin and tried to recreate the former shape. I felt guilty serving this to anyone, let alone wagashi professionals. After a few tense minutes of silence, the man said, “It tastes… healthy.” 

Overall, it was not a complete failure, and they complimented my attempt. I mentioned for the tenth time that I was not able to use a recipe, and I was sorry for putting them through such a… unique culinary experience.

Thankfully, we were finished with my dishes, and it was time to move on to the real deal. 

I tried Minamoto Kitchoan’s versions starting with the grape wagashi. The visual was drastically different from mine. The Muscat of Alexandria grape was covered in a delicate, thin layer of mochi and sugar. The grape itself was very sweet and juicy. I was surprised by how sweet it was my version with the Shine Muscat had been more sour. It’s a wonderful wagashi and I can see why it’s one of their most popular offerings. 

I was then served their version of the Japanese koi pond wagashi. I discovered that agar was the ingredient used instead of gelatin to create the clear mold that held the rest of the elements together. I was also surprised to find out that every other element was made of yokan, including the white bottom layer. And the mysterious white chunks? I’d guessed coconut, but they were actually white adzuki beans! I had been off with a lot of my ingredients.

I’m not the biggest fan of jelly desserts, but this had a strong lemon flavor and an interesting texture from the yokan. Again, I was surprised by how sweet it was. There’s this idea that Western confections are a lot sweeter than traditional Japanese desserts, but I found these wagashi to be on par with the sweetness that I’m used to.

They had saved the one I was most interested in trying for last. I was surprised to find that the jelly peach is packaged in a bag instead of a plastic container or mold like the other two. It was a bit difficult to remove from the package as the jelly started to spread out after the bag was cut away. Juice got all over the plate, but the peach jelly held its shape. It had a really nice peach aroma. The first bite struck me it had such a nostalgic flavor. It was strange having such a nostalgic reaction to a sweet I had never eaten before.

All the wagashi were beautifully packaged, lovely to look at, and shockingly yet tastefully sweet. After finishing everything, I experienced a pretty big sugar rush, so I jumped right into interviewing my gracious host.

The Interview 

Please tell me a little about the shop. Why wagashi, and why in Ginza? 

Minamoto Kitchoan has been in business for over 75 years. It was founded in Okayama prefecture but eventually expanded to stores in Tokyo, Hokkaido, Kamakura, Hiroshima, and the U.S.

Ginza was a natural choice for our main location since it’s popular with tourists and a high-end place to shop.

Do you think people underestimate how much work goes into making wagashi like this? 

I think so, because it’s expensive. I think people forget how much work goes into it. At first people are hesitant to spend 300 yen on one grape wagashi, but once they try it, they understand. Young people especially aren’t very familiar with the process.

How do you think traditional wagashi holds up against trendy, less traditional sweets? 

Younger people generally are not as interested in traditional sweets. The main customer base tends to be in their 50s or older. We’ve tried making some more “Insta-bae” (Instagram-worthy) products to interest younger customers. 

Can you tell me about how you choose which ingredients to use? For example, the muscat grapes from Okayama prefecture.

Since the company started in Okayama prefecture, we use a lot of the local fruit grown in that area. For example, Muscat of Alexandria grapes are a meibutsu (a local specialty) of Okayama. Sometimes the ingredients come from Tottori and Ehime prefectures as well. All the fruit wagashi are seasonal, and sometimes the flavor changes by the month the grapes are more sour earlier in the season and become sweeter in late summer.

What do you think is the most difficult part of making wagashi? 

Keeping the shape! And keeping a nice appearance. Things made out of jelly are difficult to transport. For example, the peach wagashi are made by filling the packaging directly with the jelly to ensure the desired shape until the customer takes it home. 

What type of wagashi would you recommend someone try making for the first time? 

I think shiratama is one of the easiest wagashi to make, since many children in Japan learn how to make it in elementary school. 

For people who’ve never tried wagashi before, what type would you personally recommend?

My personal choice? Well, if I had to recommend one, I tell people to try dorayaki! It’s my favorite. My boss’s choice is daifuku. 

Leaving Wagashi to the Experts

Still pumped full of sugar, I laughed and chatted with Alexis, relieved that my trial by gelatin was over, and I hadn’t been thrown out of the store over my sad attempts. 

Leaving the shop onto the busy Ginza street, I looked up again at the tall building and felt like I now had a better understanding about the intricate world of wagashi. More than just red beans and gelatin, this culinary artform combines seasonal ingredients, tradition, and artistry to create these detailed and (surprisingly) sweet treats. I also vowed that any future dives into wagashi would be done by visiting a wagashi shop and not creating them in my kitchen.

Katie Thompson

Official site: The Tasty Traveler
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An American based in Tokyo, Katie writes about food and travel as “The Tasty Traveler,” cataloguing and rating anything edible. She firmly believes that every place has something good to offer and is determined to find it. A life-long nomad, she has lived in seven different countries, visited over 30, and has had serious bouts of food poisoning in at least five of those beautiful places.

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