With the 2020 Summer Olympics on the horizon, Tokyo’s landscape is ever-evolving. New restaurants and shops open every week it seems, and old buildings are quickly being torn down and replaced by shiny, new shopping complexes. The problem is that these days, there is a frighteningly quick turnover with a lifespan of no more than two years for new restaurants. It’s the shops that have been here since post-WWII and earlier who have spent decades building a following going into the 21st century that continue to stand the test of time.
Even with the influx of Western sweets shops serving cakes, cookies, ice creams and soufflé pancakes, the love and pride for traditional Japanese sweets seems to be stronger than ever. With that in mind, I’d like to introduce you to five of my favourite traditional Japanese sweets and where I go to eat them.
Located on Kototoi Avenue just behind Hanayashiki (the first and oldest theme park in Japan) and Sensoji Temple in Asakusa, is an unsuspecting sweet potato shop called Chibaya. Since many visitors typically don’t wander too far outside the grounds of the temple, this shop can be easy to miss. When you walk by, you may not give it a second glance as the storefront has the feel of a small grocer or vendor rather than a snack shop. But it’s well worth seeking out.
Here they sell one thing and one thing only: deep fried sweet potatoes tangled in honey and lightly sprinkled with black sesame seeds. When you bite into it, the candied coating gives way to the soft interior of the potato, and it is scrumptious. Though many people don’t characterise sweet potato as a Japanese food, it grows in abundance here and is served in many different forms, from plain vegetable to ice cream.
The grease-stained walls of Chibaya look like they haven’t been cleaned since the shop’s opening in 1950. That only adds to the shop’s character, and it certainly doesn’t deter customers from stopping by to pick up a midday snack. Through the open kitchen, you can see every step of the process, from the potatoes on the cutting board to the glazing, and from the deep fryer straight into plastic bags, served hot for your enjoyment. While still just as popular in the summer, this is the perfect snack to take with you to warm up your insides during the winter months.
Come lunchtime or weekends, there’s always a bit of a line, but it moves quickly because there isn’t anywhere to sit down and eat. You have to take your snack and skedaddle.
Address: 3-9-10 Asakusa, Taito-ku, Tokyo
Price: ¥750 for 400g (enough to share with a friend or have extras for later)
Hours: 10am-6pm (weekdays), 10am-5pm (weekends)
Should you find yourself perusing the streets of Tsukiji’s outer market, stop by Hatoya and try some mamewagashi. These are traditional tofu beans or peanuts covered in different sugars. The standard flavour is a black sesame tofu bean, and they’re downright delicious. Think of them like sweet, on-the-go snacks that are perfect for tiding you over in between meals. They’re not too sweet, and Hatoya sells a variety of flavours, some of which change with the seasons. For example, you’ll find mango and raspberry flavours fully stocked during the summer, and when autumn rolls around, a roasted brown tea flavour makes a brief appearance on store shelves.
As soon as you walk into the shop, you’ll notice they have bowls of samples set out of all their products so you can try before you buy. Mamewagashi are one of my personal favourite snacks to binge eat. So much so that when I stop by the shop after my morning tour through Tsukiji Fish Market, the owner knows exactly which flavours I’m looking for. When you go, try either the black sesame or the matcha milk flavours!
Address: 4-14-16 Tsukiji, Chuo-ku, Tokyo
Daifuku, literally meaning ‘great luck’ in Japanese, has two main components: mochi and anko. Mochi is known as the Japanese rice cake. It’s made from glutinous Japanese rice that’s pounded into a paste with water and molded into a dough ball. Most people aren’t familiar with mochi or, if they are, sometimes they are put off by the texture. Think of it as a soft and chewy but edible playdoh. Daifuku is basically mochi with different sweet fillings inside. The most common filling is anko (sweet red bean paste made from adzuki beans and sugar). At first glance, sweet red bean paste is similar in appearance to chocolate, but it’s significantly less sweet. If you don’t care for sweet red bean, Soratsuki serves different flavoured fillings that are may be more suitable to your palate. I always say you can’t go wrong with chocolate, and I’d also recommend the green tea or custard flavour. Yum!
Address: 4-11-10 Tsukiji, Chuo-ku, Tokyo
Inside Nakamise, the inner market street leading up to the main hall of Sensoji Temple, there is a vendor called Kokonoe that specialises in a treat called agemanju. What is agemanju, you ask? Well, manju is a soft sweet bun made from flour, rice powder and buckwheat. Like many other traditional treats, it is filled with sweet red bean paste. Agemanju is the fried version so the outside is crispy. Kokonoe sells a variety of flavours from the standard red bean or black sesame, to green tea, custard, sweet potato, cherry and even savoury options like curry. It’s kind of like a Japanese donut in a way. At the time of this writing, they are the only shop in Tokyo that serves agemanju, which makes it all the more unique.
Address: 2-3-1 Asakusa, Taito-ku, Tokyo (inside Nakamise)
Price: ￥150-200/each (depends on the flavor)
When you get a chance, check out a show on Netflix called The Sweet Tooth Salaryman. It’s a fictional show about a sales representative who visits his clients in different neighbourhoods in Tokyo and aims to finish his work in time to indulge in the city’s tastiest and most beloved sweets. The featured shops and sweets are all real, and it’s thanks to this show, I now know about and have come to love Seijuken.
Seijuken specialises in a treat called dorayaki. Dorayaki consists of the aforementioned sweet red bean paste sandwiched between two palm-sized pancakes made of castella (a type of sponge cake). The shop starts selling individual dorayaki from 1pm, and no matter the day of the week, expect a line. They don’t use any preservatives or additives, and the dorayaki must be eaten within four days. But that’s usually not a problem because most people devour them straight away.
Thanks to the shop’s consistent high quality, unique brown sugar flavour, and media coverage, Seijuken has swept the number one spot on every top 10 list in Tokyo. At first, I wasn’t sure it would live up to the hype, but in my recent unhealthy cravings for dorayaki, Seijuken has also taken the number one spot in my heart and stomach.
Address: 1-4-16 Nihonbashi-Horidomecho, Chuo-ku, Tokyo