Did you know that June 16th is Wagashi Day? Wagashi means Japanese sweets, with ‘wa’ meaning Japanese and ‘k(g)ashi’ meaning confections.
The origins of Wagashi Day are unclear, but according to multiple Japanese sources, its history began in the Kasho (aka Kajo 848-851) era in the mid-Heian period. It is said that the sitting Emperor, Ninmyo, was faced with a disease outbreak, and in hope for a swift end to the suffering, he made offerings of 16 sweets to the gods on the 16th day of the 6th month.
This became Kajo day, a day of offering and eating wagashi. The tradition continued and peaked during the Edo period when sweets, previously only available to the ruling class, became accessible to ordinary people. The custom unfortunately died out in the political and social turmoil of the early Meiji (1868-1912) period, until it was revived by the Japan Wagashi Association in 1979.
When I first discovered Wagashi Day, I was disappointed because as a child I favored savory snacks to sweets. Since June 16th also happened to be my birthday, I would have preferred a soy-sauce-on-rice-cracker-wrapped-in-seaweed day. In fact, I avoided wagashi for most of my life because I was averse to the smell of anko, the red bean paste that is central to these confections.
My appreciation for red bean paste only developed in the last decade after I started learning chado, the Japanese Way of Tea. I was served wagashi at practice every week before having a bowl of matcha, and I was too diffident to say that I didn’t like anko to my teacher. In the beginning, I quickly swallowed the wagashi so that I tasted them as little as possible. But soon, I got used to the scent of anko, and realized that the bean paste noticeably brought out the flavor and aroma of the powdered green tea that followed. So if you have tasted red bean paste before and thought it wasn’t for you, I am proof that you can still acquire the taste for anko.
These days I look forward to wagashi at tea practice, many of which are created to convey the seasons. Wagashi depicting a hydrangea is popular through the month of June. You can also read more about seasonal wagashi on the Tokyo Wagashi Association website.
To celebrate Kajo Day this year, I made the most basic, but one of my favorite, ‘anmochi‘, which is a ball of red bean paste wrapped in sweet mochi. I followed the recipe from the book, “The Art of Wagashi”, by Professor Kimiko Gunji of Japan House at the University of Illinois. I have tried a few recipes from this book, and they were very easy to follow. It is also very helpful that the listed ingredients are available in the supermarkets here in the U.S. So I highly recommend that you get a copy if you’re interested in trying your hand on creating wagashi.