Sushi, ramen, and shabu shabu are among the many iconic foods you’ll find in Japan. But in any quest for quality Japanese food, don’t forget dessert—or sweet snacks any time of day. Japan has its fair share of traditional confections, and its bakers and other sweets-makers are also looking beyond the borders to make treats that will rival what you might find in Paris and other major Western cities.
I took to the streets of Tokyo (and a little bit beyond) to find some of the best Japanese sweets. Part of the fun of the hunt was seeing the attention to detail paid to preparation, plating, packaging, and overall service. Whether visiting a taiyaki maker on the street or an internationally acclaimed baker with a prestigious place in one of the city’s finest department stores, I found myself impressed with the quality paid to every sweet.
Japanese sweets tend to be not too sweet. Savory elements are sometimes integrated. Typical of so much Asian food, texture is an important part of the experience of enjoying Japanese sweets. Many are fairly light, and often they’re incredibly delicate. Almost all, to me at least, are delicious. From dango to a sweet potato “sandwich” to a Japanese twist on the croissant, here are eight standout sweets I ate in Tokyo.
One of the most traditional of Japanese sweets is dango, a dumpling made from mochiko (rice flour) that pairs well with green tea. Close to Isetan department store in Shinjuku is Oiwake Dango Honpo, historically known for its dango. (Honpo means the original store.) For 530 yen (just over $5), you get tea and a choice of two skewers of dango. I chose one with sweet soy that gives a syrupy, savory flavor not unlike the thick teriyaki glaze you’ll find in the United States. The other is topped with matcha (green tea) paste. The set comes with kombu (kelp) strips to break up the sweet flavors.
It’s easy to escape the city with a day-trip from Tokyo to Kawagoe, which some call the most Japanese place in Japan because of its Edo period buildings. Kawagoe is also known for its sweet potatoes, so I went to Kurazukuri Honpo to try two sweets, packaged as in this picture.
Kurazukuri Honpo: 5-3 Kubomachi, Kawagoe-shi 350-0055 (map); 049-225-0225
From Kawagoe, on the left is Poku Poku (90 yen, or almost $1). This take on the traditional Japanese confection known as manju (a bun made from flour) is filled with pureed sweet potato and then dusted with cinnamon sugar before being baked. On the right is Ichiban Kura (170 yen, or almost $2). This sweet is a form of monaka, which is a sandwich of wafers filled with red bean paste. “Kura” is an old-style house, so this sweet is in the shape of the store itself.
Roll Cake is a popular dessert, as the Japanese people love the soft texture and fresh cream. In Isetan department store’s basement food floor, I found Kihachi selling an irresistible version (480 yen, or almost $5). This sponge cake swirled together whipped cream (light and refreshing), matcha cream (delightfully bitter), and kuromitsu cream (with molasses-like flavor that goes so well with matcha). There are also azuki beans (two kinds on top) dispersed throughout the cake.
Kihachi: Isetan Department Store, 3-14-1 Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo 160-0022 (map)
Integrating French ingredients and technique is a trademark of many Japanese bakeries. One patisserie with shops in both Paris and Tokyo is Sadaharu Aoki, which like Kihachi is located on the food floor of Isetan. Here I combined cultures in sampling a matcha croissant (334 yen, or over $3).
Aoki’s matcha croissant is a thing of beauty. The crust is deep golden brown and crackles upon each bite. The inner crumb is feathery with good pull to it. But its most distinguishing characteristic is the captivating green color from the matcha powder. This croissant has a pleasant bit of bitterness from the matcha, and pairs well with both coffee and green tea.
When in Tokyo, it’s always a test to find the most unique food to gift someone or bring home for yourself. Still in Isetan and seeking something both sweet and savory, I was pleased to find chocolate senbei (429 yen, or just over $4) from Aozashi Kariri. I sampled all of the truly savory flavors like shrimp, soy sauce, and curry, but my sweet tooth took control in choosing chocolate. These rice crackers are crisp and with just enough chocolate to make them an addictive treat.
(Originally published here at Serious Eats on August 13.)