We’ve just discovered these books of designs for wagashi – Japanese sweets – which date to the Edo period, and are now available to view online. The colours – ranging from deliciously delicate to surprisingly bold – are not just lovely as palette (or should that be palate?) inspiration, but also provide a glimpse of the history and significance of what is a visual as much as a culinary art form.
In Japan, the cakes and sweets of wagashi are also as ‘art of the five senses.’ Often created in different layers of taste and colour, each cake creates a scene, often with seasonal significance. Some wagashi use colour to represent the seasons changing – a leaf shape coloured in segments of green, yellow and red, for example, indicating the arrival of autumn – while others employ colour to mimic the look of plums, blossom and other fruits. As much an art as a craft in Japan, you can find wagashi pieces that feature a goldfish swimming in a lily pond cube, or perfectly mimic the look, if not the taste, of sushi.
The development of wagashi went hand in hand with the tea ceremony and became cemented in the culture during Japan’s Edo period, from 1603 to 1868. It was a time noted for the enjoyment of art and poetry, and the sweets that the era produced are a perfect illustration of the times’ sensibilities. As well as nature images, many wagashi of the time referenced haiku and classical literature, making it the perfect conversation starter while enjoying a serving of tea.
These Edo-era books of instructions for the sweets can be viewed in full at the Japanese Diet Library online collection.