You might already know the Japanese word wagashi, but what about dagashi? While wagashi describes high-end Japanese sweets, dagashi is the exact opposite: small, cheap, dime-a-dozen style snacks and candy.
Why do these two words sound so similar? Although they’re both formed from the word for candy, kashi (菓子), wagashi gets the 和 prefix, meaning “Japanese-style,” while dagashi takes 駄, a character meaning “poor” or “low-grade.” But don’t be deceived! Even though dagashi might not be made with the most expensive ingredients, these sweets are an incredibly popular Japanese treat and remain an important staple of traditional Japanese snack food.
What Is Dagashi?
Just like wagashi, dagashi is a broad term describing a multitude of different snacks and candy, From sweet to savory and soft to crunchy, different kinds of dagashi are targeted at different customers with different tastes, and this variety is one of dagashi’s many attractions. That said, besides being cheaply sold and produced, dagashi has a couple of other common characteristics. Since these Japanese sweets are originally aimed at children, dagashi not only needed to be cheap and easy to eat but also, most importantly, eye-catching. In the poky, densely-packed dagashi stores called dagashi-ya—or even in modern-day convenience stores—the multitude of different products can sometimes feel overwhelming. Dagashi manufacturers needed a way to make their candies stand out from the rest, and many achieved this by wrapping their snacks in colourful, fun packaging.
For example, one of the most popular Japanese dagashi is Umaibo, a crunchy puffed corn snack notorious for its wide range of flavors, from corn potage to apple pie. Almost as famous as the snack itself is Umiabo’s mascot, Umaemon, a smiling grey cat clearly designed to parody the popular animated character Doraemon. Besides being adorable, Umaemon is prominently featured on each stick’s wrapping, performing different activities depending on the flavor. This helps to make umaibo instantly recognisable, while adding an additional element of playful discovery to the product’s various flavors.
Another distinguishing feature of dagashi is that many of them include small toys and prizes to further attract their young customers. One type of dagashi, Fue Ramune, is practically a toy in itself, shaped with a hole that allows you to produce a high-pitched whistling sound as you eat! Other treats will include small collectible figures and illustrated cards for the popular school-yard game of menko. Finally, many dagashi also include the random chance to win a prize entitling you to—you guessed it—another free dagashi.
What Are the Origins of Dagashi?
While dagashi has been around since the Edo period (1603-1868), it wasn’t until the end of World War II that dagashi took off in popularity. During this period of economic boom, dagashi-ya opened all over the country, giving schoolchildren a place to spend their pocket money and waste time after school.
In recent years, with the rise of convenience stores and the demise of local shopping streets, dagashi-ya have virtually died out, with only around 50 remaining in Tokyo today. For many Japanese people, therefore, dagashi are a source of considerable nostalgia.
What Are the Different Types of Dagashi?
One of the most appealing aspects of dagashi-ya is the incredibly wide range of flavors and textures you’ll find on offer. While there’s no definitive list of Japanese dagashi, these cheap, tasty snacks can broadly be divided into two simple categories: classic dagashi and modern dagashi.
Classic dagashi describes the oldest kinds of dagashi, popular in the earliest days of the boom. This dagashi often used dried base ingredients like seafood, fruit, and vegetables in order to create snacks with a long and stable shelf life that wouldn’t need constant refrigeration. Rather than using sugar, an expensive ingredient at the time, many early dagashi also made liberal use of starch- or rice-based sweeteners to keep costs down.
As you might expect, this combination led to some pretty strange sounding snacks! One such snack is Sukonbu, a popular dagashi consisting of strips of kelp seaweed seasoned with vinegar and sweet powder. Other popular examples of classic dagashi include Kinako-bou, a cylindrical candy stick sweetened with roasted soy bean powder, and Yotchan Ika, a chewy jerky-like snack incorporating fish paste and squid flavoring.
Of course, not all classic dagashi are quite so confronting. Also included in this category is Konpeito, a colorful, star-shaped sugar candy first introduced to Japan in the 1500s and Karinto, a sweet, deep-fried dough made of flour and brown sugar.
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By comparison, modern dagashi includes relatively new treats that reflect the many changes in Japan’s snack food industry while still being cheap, playful, and easy to eat. For example, while chocolate was too expensive for early dagashi manufacturers, nowadays many popular dagashi includes chocolate, such as Meiji’s strawberry and chocolate flavored Apollo cones.
Another popular flavor in modern dagashi is ramune. You might already know ramune as a Japanese drink similar to Sprite served in a vibrant blue bottle, but you can also find this sugary, carbonated flavor in a range of candies. Ramune candy comes in many different varieties, the most popular of which is Morinaga’s Ramune Candy, consisting of little white balls of soda-flavored candy sold in a snack box shaped like the beverage’s iconic bottle.
Besides chocolate and ramune, fruit is another common flavor in modern dagashi. Sakuma Drops are probably the most popular example of this trend—dating back as far as 1908! These fruit flavored hard candies are immediately recognisable thanks to their iconic, rectangular tin container, which featured prominently in the anime movie Grave of the Fireflies.
Finally, on the savory side of things, one of the most popular dagashi after Umaibo is Baby Star Ramen. In keeping with the cost-effective dagashi tradition, Baby Star Ramen uses the byproduct of instant ramen production to create a crunchy, chip-like snack made of dried pieces of ramen noodles. It comes in a variety of different flavors including chicken, salt, yakisoba, and tonkotsu.
With a long history spanning over four hundred years, dagashi have enough variety to please any palate. The need to make products cheap, distinctive, and shelf-stable pushed manufacturers to create some of the most unique snack experiences Japan has to offer. From Umaibo to Big Katsu, Cabbage Taro to Namaiki Beer—dagashi really proves that necessity is the mother of all invention.