As the days become shorter and the weather begins to cool, autumn arrives in a parade of deep, earthy colors such as crimson, violet, and mustard. The challenging humidity of summer subsides and the crisp, cool air of autumn invites many Japanese residents to enjoy enriching activities such as reading, painting, hiking, and enjoying delicious, hearty dishes made with seasonal ingredients. Though foods such as fresh grilled pacific saury and soul-warming hot pots gain lots of traction, something you cannot miss are the decadent traditional sweets, or wa-gashi, that can be enjoyed especially during this season. Depending on where in Japan you are, these sweets can vary widely, which makes for the perfect gift for a loved one when traveling to these locations! Today we’ll explore a few traditional sweets popular in different Japanese regions during the autumn season, and their unique history!
Image credits: Age-manju from Asakusa Kokonoe
Our first location is the Kanto region, most popular for its cities such as Tokyo and Yokohama. Though there are a plethora of traditional sweets that have their roots here, one of the most popular is the age-manju, which is a deep-fried manju! The chef takes a manju, a small pastry cake filled traditionally with a red bean paste, and lightly coats it in batter before they fry it to a crispy golden brown color. The history of the age-manju dates back to over 100 years ago when people would place manjus as offerings inside of Buddhist altars. After some time, the manju would harden and dry out. Rather than wasting the food, people began to deep fry the manju to reheat the interior and to give it a crispy exterior for a pleasant snack.
After over 100 years, the age-manju is enjoyed as its own specific treat, now available in a variety of flavors.Both the filling and outer batter options can vary vastly, especially during the autumn time! A few of our favorites are the red bean paste with chopped chestnut, as well as the sweet potato paste with matcha batter. Age-manju can be found in almost any gourmet-centered locations around Tokyo, such as Asakusa and Ueno, where the manju is deep-fried right in front of your eyes. For an elevated experience, we recommend trying the age-manju from the Kikunoya Flagship Store, located in Ginza. Macadamia nuts are sprinkled on top of the manju before it is deep fried to perfection using premium quality oil for a satisfying crunch. Why not enjoy this treat after visiting our flagship store as well, which is only a short 3-minute stroll away!
Another epicenter of traditional Japanese sweets is the Kansai region, especially in Kyoto where they are most famous for their deep, robust Uji-matcha. Sweets in the Kansai region oftentimes are more simplistic and use less sugar to truly focus on bringing out the natural flavor of each ingredient. A hearty dessert popular in the colder months is the zenzai, a warm red bean soup accompanied by boiled or grilled mochi. The zenzai is said to have traveled from Izumo to the then-capital of Japan, Kyoto. This dish was served during Jinzaisai, or the Festival of the Visit of the Gods, a Shinto belief where all of the deities would travel to Izumo to gather once a year during the autumn months. During this festival, a special mochi, called Jinzai mochi, and beans would be offered to the dieties. Near the end of the festival, the mochi and beans were placed together in a pot to create a stew which was shared by the people of Izumo. Through the exchange of dialects, by the time the dish reached Kyoto it was known as ‘zenzai’. Limited to the autumn time, many tea houses in Kyoto that serve this dish add soft, roasted chestnuts, or even replace the red beans entirely with a chestnut paste to make a rich, creamy treat that is perfect for the colder months.
Kyoto, known for its gorgeous scenery, is even more breathtaking in the autumn with its abundant Japanese maple leaves that turn crimson red during this season. When visiting Kyoto in the fall be sure to partake in the Japanese tradition of ‘momiji-gari’, which directly translates to “Japanese maple leaf harvesting”. Despite its name, this tradition is simply the act of going outside to observe and admire the colorful leaves of autumn. We highly advise to keep in mind to dress comfortably as the best spots to partake in ‘momiji-gari’ are usually higher in the mountains. In true Kyoto fashion, these mountains have numerous tea houses for visitors to rest at and enjoy a warm cup of tea along with traditional wa-gashi, including zenzai of course!
For a comfortable, yet stylish look perfect for the chic atmosphere of Kyoto, we recommend our Ivory First Class Hoodie paired with our Taupe Relax Wide Trousers. Stay warm and active while you enjoy the mystic scenery of Kyoto without having to worry about feeling underdressed. Both the trousers and hoodie include pockets which can easily store your smartphone and smaller items, making them both the ideal travel partner!
Our final destination is the Chubu Region, famous for the historic city of Nagoya, which is one of our most recent store locations!
Nagoya is most famous for their unique dessert that is quite simple and consists of three ingredients; toast, butter, and red bean paste. Known as ogura (red bean paste) toast, this dish is enjoyed both as a light snack or even as a breakfast food. Its history originates from the end of World War I where a quaint wa-gashi store was no longer able to purchase mochi rice due to the inflation quadrupling its prices. Simultaneously during this time, there was a ‘bread boom’, which meant an abundant amount of bread and butter were readily available, and for a discounted price. Taking this as an opportunity, the owner converted their wa-gashi store into a ‘kissaten’, or “tea-drinking shop”, which usually serves western-style food and drinks such as coffee and sandwiches, opposed to a traditional Japanese tea shop. The shop owner began serving buttered toast, which was a popular dish at that time. Shortly after, they noticed a trend of younger people ordering buttered toast with zenzai and dipping the bread into the sweet red bean stew. This was when the owner got the idea to incorporate the two dishes, creating the infamous ogura toast!
Speaking of momiji leaves of Kyoto, another Japanese treat is quite unique and perfect for ‘momiji-gari’ season, especially for those who may not be able to partake in the event. This must-try unique snack is deep-fried momiji leaves, perfect for the autumn season! To make these snacks, momiji leaves are harvested and pickled in salt a year prior to them being served. Then, they are deep-fried using a sweet, decadent batter to crispy perfection. This traditional snack is not only enjoyed by locals alongside a cup of warm green tea, but they make wonderfully unique and seasonal gifts! Why not pair the sweets with a warming item from kay me, such as the Peach Pink Silk Wool Cutwork Lace Scarf, for the ultimate autumn gift. The scarf is sure to keep the recipient warm as the colder months come up, and it leaves them with a special keepsake even after the sweets are eaten!
Whether going for a stroll around your local area or traveling for business, be sure to give traditional Japanese sweets a try, especially if they offer fresh seasonal options! Traditional Japanese sweets can be found practically anywhere from the snack aisle at convenience stores to high-end shops located within boutique districts, and don’t forget to share your favorite dishes with loved ones as souvenirs.
After stopping by for a quick sweet treat, be sure to complete your trip by visiting any of our 12 stores all across Japan! All of our store locations can be found here: