This is a guest post from my personal friend, Yuko (@guideyu and @guideyu_) from Guide-Yu, the super personalized Japan tour guide!
Yuko is awesome. She’s Japanese – but she also is an avid Kabuki fan, makes Japanese sweets in her spare time, and even dances traditional Japanese buyou! A true fan of Japanese culture. Today she has provided a post introducing the connection between traditional Japanese sweets and the seasons. Really fascinating stuff if you’re interested in Japanese culture. Enjoy!
In the traditional Japanese calendar May is called 皐月 (sa-tsuki), short for 早苗月（sanae-tsuki), which means “the month of the young sprouts.” Yes, May is the time for rice farmers to start planting.
The Japanese, who originally lived in a mainly agricultural society, have lived in harmony with nature and are known for their sensitivity to the seasons; not only the four seasons that we all know, but also even slighter more subtle periods between those four seasons.
This seasonal concept is also fundamental to 和菓子（wagashi / Japanese Confectionery, or more simply, Japanese sweets).
While there are simple and plain wagashi that are eaten throughout the year, many wagashi are meant to convey a sense of the season by representing the change in nature or seasonal festivities.
For example, 桜餅（sakura-mochi / cherry blossom rice cake; pink colored rice cake (or sometimes crepe) with sweet red bean paste inside, wrapped with a salted cherry leaf) is often eaten as a spring delicacy. However, sakura-mochi is usually limited to the late March to early April timeframe, which also corresponds with the time when the cherry blossoms are in bloom.
Once sakura-mochi season is over we then have 柏餅（kashiwa-mochi / oak leaf rice cake; rice cake with sweet red bean paste inside, wrapped with an oak leaf) which is usually eaten from late April to early May. Kashiwa-mochi is traditionally served on May 5th, Children’s Day, a national holiday to celebrate children’s growth and happiness; the oak leaf is the symbol of our descendants’ prosperity.
For the hot and humid Japanese summer there are wagashi that provide a refreshing and cool feeling. For example, these wagashi might have the color and shape of a stream of water. When autumn is around the corner there are red and yellow colored wagashi that represent the autumn foliage. In the winter wagashi take on themes of snow, camellia, and of the new years celebrations, to name a few.
There are countless examples like these for each season, and even further variations in the different regions of Japan.
The combination of 餅 (mochi / rice cake) and 餡 (an or anko / sweet red bean paste) is one typical example of wagashi, but there are other ingredients for wagashi to provide a variety of different textures, colors, and flavors, for each season and for each occasion.
There you have it! Hope you enjoyed learning about the seasonal context of traditional Japanese sweets. I know I did.
Yuko is planning to provide more content in the future so look forward to them!
What’s your favorite traditional Japanese sweet? Do you know it’s cultural meaning?
The images used in this post are from a free Japanese image website.