Japan can seem like a country of opposites: Super urban structures sharing space with centuries-old temples and shrines. Cities with sleepless neon lights just a short drive away from the beautiful mountain countryside. Kawaii and wabi-sabi.
These opposing ideas extend into the world of Japanese food. On one hand, there’s refined cuisine like kaiseki ryori and omakase sushi. On the other, big bowls of oily ramen and crunchy, savory menchi katsu.
In the same way, Japanese snacks have their own version of opposites. You might be familiar with the word wagashi, or artisanal Japanese sweets, but what about dagashi? The polar opposite intricate and often expensive wagashi, dagashi are cheap, commonplace sweets and treats you can find almost anywhere.
A Brief History of Dagashi
During the Edo period, most okashi (sweets) were made from caster sugar, an ingredient that was only accessible to daimyo, feudal lords, and samurai of high status. At the time, these high-class sweets were known as joukashi, “jou” meaning high quality. In comparison, the term dagashi was created to refer to the sweets made from cheaper unrefined brown sugar that was more accessible to the lower classes.
Originally, these cheap treats were called “ichimon kashi” (ichi meaning one and mon being a type of currency used in Edo Japan.) The name for these cheap treats changed over time alongside the different currencies that sprung up over the years. The name finally settled as dagashi after the end of WWII, combining the words “da” or low-grade/poor, with “kashi” or snack.
Dagashi generally carry a sense of nostalgia for most people. With their colorful and gaudy packaging that often features popular anime characters and brightly dyed snacks accompanied by toys and prizes, dagashi recalls a specific time in Japanese history. Despite their age, the heart of these treats lives on in small dagashi shops across Japan where their simplicity and charm are cherished by young and old alike.
A giant corn-puff stick, these are arguably the most popular dagashi, with flavors ranging from cheese to salad to Takoyaki and even corn soup. Not to mention their mascot is the popular anime character Doraemon.
Baby Star Ramen
Similar to the small fried noodles usually served at American-style Japanese restaurants, Baby Star Ramen are bags of dry, fried, and seasoned ramen noodles born out of the instant ramen boom. They can be eaten as is, straight from the bag, or sprinkled on top of other dishes!
These colorful little star-shaped candies have a long history in Japan, dating back to the 1500s. That doesn’t stop their popularity now, as they’ve even bridged the gap between dagashi and wagashi, with some artisanal Japanese candy makers creating their own versions of the sugary sweets.
Not one of the most flattering looking classic dagashi, karinto are made from two simple ingredients: flour and brown sugar. Even still, these deep-fried treats are a perfect combination of crunchy and sweet.
Similar to the American candy smarties, these soft, sugar candies come in a variety of flavors (the most common being ramune soda) and can be spotted by the rabbit and squirrel printed on their packages.
Pachi Pachi Uranai Chocolates
These colorful round chocolates resembling Skittles or M&M’s have fairly unique packaging that almost makes them look like medicine. Rather than dosage instructions, on the back of each bubble in the blister pack, you’ll find a fortune ranging from “Love” to “Homework.” It’s no wonder it’s said they were quite popular with schoolgirls.
One of the savory types of dagashi, kabayaki are essentially fish jerky flavored to taste like grilled eel. There are plenty of other types of these treats including dried octopus and squid!
Like kabayaki, this fish-jerky-style treat is made to resemble a real katsu (a breaded pork cutlet) and although it is made to taste just like one, there’s no pork here. The meat is actually fish!
Featured in the Studio Ghibli film “Grave of the Fireflies,” Sakuma drops are small hard candies with various fruit flavors (even made with real fruit juice!) They’ve held a popular spot in the world of dagashi since the 1800s.
Another corn puff snack, these little bite-size savory treats come in a bag just like chips and sport a surreal frog police officer as their mascot. Described as tasting kind of like Takoyaki, these salty treats are packed with flavor and have a satisfying crunch.
That was just a small selection of the many dagashi you’ll find lining the walls and displays of any dagashiya. With only a few yen, you can unlock another side of Japan's unique snack culture!
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