When most people think of Japanese cuisine, they think of savory sushi and ramen. What they don’t know is that Japan is also a heaven for foodies with a sweet tooth (like me). Luckily, Japan’s sweet side is a lot vegan-friendlier than its savory one. This survival guide to vegan sweets in Japan will help you enjoy all the treats the country has to offer without worry.
Vegan Traditional Japanese Sweets
Here’s the good news: Traditional Japanese sweets (known as wagashi) are vegan 99% of the time.
What is wagashi?
Wagashi has a long history that is closely tied to Buddhism in Japan. During the Heian period (794-1185), wagashi was originally made with simple ingredients such as rice, beans, and nuts, and was used as an offering to the gods in religious ceremonies. Over time, wagashi developed into a culinary art form, incorporating a wide variety of ingredients and techniques.
Common ingredients used in wagashi include: Rice flour, anko (a sweet paste made from azuki beans and sugar), kinako (roasted soybean flour), fruits, nuts, and agar-agar.
Wagashi remains an important part of Japanese culture and is usually served with green tea. Here are some of my favorites that all happen to be 100% vegan.
Daifuku mochi (my favorite wagashi of all time) is a Japanese confectionery made from soft glutinous rice flour dough (mochi) stuffed with a sweet filling. Most commonly, the filling is sweet bean paste and/or fruit. Traditional daifuku is always vegan, but some modern variations include non-vegan cream fillings.
Where to find daifuku mochi: If all else fails and you can’t find any other vegan food in Japan, daifuku mochi is a true lifesaver. You can find it in every convenience store or supermarket. For the best daifuku, check out the food malls in larger department stores—there’s usually always one or two stalls selling fresh daifuku.
Dango is a type of Japanese dumpling made from mochiko (rice flour) and served on a skewer. There are many different types of dango, all of which are vegan. Some common types of dango include:
- Hanami dango, aka that emoji with the pink, white, and green balls on a stick. Hanami dango is traditionally eaten during cherry blossom season in Japan.
- Yomogi dango is a type of dango flavored with yomogi, a type of Japanese mugwort. It has a unique, herbal flavor and is green in color.
- Mitarashi dango is plain dango topped with a sweet, sticky sauce made from soy sauce, sugar, and starch. It’s an acquired taste, but if you like the combination of sweet and salty you’ll love this one.
Where to find dango: Dango is a popular festival snack in Japan. It can be found at street stalls and food vendors, as well as in specialty shops and department store food malls.
Anmitsu is a type of Japanese dessert made with small cubes of agar agar (a type of gelatin made from seaweed), small balls of mochi, and a variety of sweet beans and fruits. It is typically served with sweet syrup and garnished with a variety of toppings such as sweet bean paste, fruit, and more mochi.
The traditional version of anmitsu is vegan, but dairy ice cream and soft serve is a popular topping. Other than that, anmitsu is a pretty safe bet when it comes to finding vegan dessert in Japan.
Where to find anmitsu: Anmitsu is a popular dessert in Japan, so you can find it in many traditional tea houses and confectionery shops. Another great place to look for anmitsu is one of the many green tea specialty cafes in Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto.
Zenzai and Oshiruko
Zenzai and oshiruko are sweet dessert soups made with adzuki beans and sugar. Both zenzai and oshiruko are completely vegan and traditionally topped with pieces of mochi. The main difference between the two is that zenzai is usually chunkier and denser, while oshiruko is smoother and more soupy.
Where to find zenzai and oshiruko: Served hot, zenzai and oshiruko are common vegan wintertime desserts in Japan. The best place to find them is in traditional Japanese tea houses and wagashi cafes.
Best Places for Traditional Wagashi in Tokyo
Japan’s capital is a heaven for sweet-toothed vegans, provided you’re in to confectionery made from rice and beans. That might sound strange at first, but give wagashi a try and see for yourself— you might just fall in love.
Here are some of my favorite spots in Tokyo for vegan sweets and desserts.
Toraya is a traditional Japanese wagashi shop founded in the 16th century. Its confectionery is considered some of the finest wagashi in Japan.
The company has around 80 shops throughout the country, but Toraya’s three-story flagship store in Tokyo’s Akasaka neighborhood is a must-visit. Go up to the third floor and you can watch skilled patissiers craft beautiful wagashi right in front of your eyes. After that, all you’ll want to do is sit down in Toraya’s cafe and enjoy freshly made wagashi and a cup of matcha.
The historical Asakusa district is a popular spot for first-time visitors to Tokyo. Besides being home to the famous Sensoji Temple, Asakusa also happens to be a mecca for vegans with a sugar craving—wagashi galore.
Stroll the small alleys and streets of Asakusa and you’ll find countless stalls and specialty shops offering dango, various mochi, anmitsu, and zenzai.
Details | Location
Kosoan Tea House
Kosoan tea house is picture book Japan—and the perfect place to enjoy some traditional plant-based wagashi. Nestled away in an old wooden house in Tokyo’s underrated Jiyugaoka district (just 10 minutes away from Shibuya Station!), Kosoan serves Japanese sweet classics such including zenzai, anmitsu, and frothy matcha.
We went for the matcha zenzai, which is a hot bowl of zenzai lathered in green tea. Everything about our visit to Kosoan was perfect—from the chewy mochi in our zenzai to the peaceful tea house ambiance.
Cha-no-Ha Tea Room
You wouldn’t expect this little oasis of zen in the midst of Ginza’s hustle and bustle, but there it is. Packed away in the far corner of Matsuya’s basement food hall, we stumbled across Cha-no-Ha by accident—an incredibly lucky accident.
Out front, Cha-no-Ha is tea shop offering a large selection of Japan’s finest green teas. Behind the counter is a inconspicuous door with traditional Japanese shop curtains, which marks the entrance to a cozy little tea room. You’ll probably have to wait 10 minutes because Cha-no-Ha is pretty popular (especially with elderly Japanese women), but the wait is worth it.
Just watching the passion and expertise with which the woman behind the counter whipped our matcha was worth it, but Cha-no-Has freshly made wagashi are the cherry on top. They’re just as tasty as they are photogenic. If you want to take some wagashi home, Cha-no-Ha even sells their confectionery out front.
Matsuya, Mitsukoshi, and Isetan Food Malls
Listing all of Tokyo’s amazing department store food malls would go beyond the scope of this article. But here are my favorites that have a mouth-watering selection of vegan wagashi:
- Isetan arguably boasts Tokyo’s best food mall. Located in Shinjuku, this high-end department store doesn’t disappoint in the sweets category.
- Matsuya is one of Ginza’s main department stores. Not only is its basement food hall huge, its selection of wagashi is one of the best in Tokyo.
- Mitsukoshi is just a stone’s throw away from Matsuya. Besides Western confectionery, Matsuya’s food hall has numerous stalls selling vegan wagashi.
Nakajima No Ochaya Tea House
To be fair, this traditional tea house in Shiodome’s mesmerizing Hama-rikyu Garden doesn’t offer an extensive selection of Japanese sweets. It only offers two different types of wagashi sets, one of which is vegan.
Skip the dorayaki set (which contains pancakes made with egg) and go for the traditional wagashi set with matcha. The setting of this tea house is so beautiful that the wagashi automatically tastes 10x better than usual.
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