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Wasanbon sugar: Japan's traditional and delicate sugar

Wasanbon sugar: Japan's traditional and delicate sugar

Moé  Kishida |

Since most of my writing on Yunomi is about tea, I thought I would mix it up a bit to write about a traditional and special type of sugar called “wasanbon”. Wasanbon sugar is made from a native variety called bamboo sugar (commonly known as fine millet). And this native variety is still cultivated in the regions of Tokushima and Kagawa Prefectures in the Shikoku area of Japan. It is one of the few domestically produced sugars that is made without the use of machinery. 

The origin of the name, wasanbon

The name “wasanbon” is a mouthful, especially if Japanese is not your mother tongue. While it was originally called sanbonto (Japanese: 三盆糖 with the kanji sugar at the end), how it came to be finalized to “wasanbon” is a bit foggy and there appears to be several theories. Some say that “sanbon” came from Sanbonmatsu in Kagawa Prefecture as this was the shipping port for this sugar. Perhaps the most feasible theory however is due to the fact that for this sugar to be refined, it is sharpened (i.e., process of “sharpening” refers to the act of making the sugar particles finer) three times on a tray called bon (盆). As this refining technique spread, the production of sanbon sugar began and it is said that at first since there was no dedicated sharpening stand, people simply sharpened it on the tray they had on hand, referred to as “bon” in Japanese. This was also a period when there was no white sugar. Hence, it appears that after grinding the sugar three times, the wasanbon was considered to be refined sugar and then a finished product to be shipped. Similar to “wagashi” (Japanese sweet/confectioneries), the “wa” (kanji:和) part of wasanbon refers to Japan. Notably, before wasanbon, it is said that the sweetest food in Japan is said to have been persimmon!

 dried shibu gaki (persimmons)Hanging shibu-gaki (astringent persimmon) being dried, photo by matsuemon.

Awa wasanbon 

At times, one may come across wasanbon called “Awa wasanbon”. This sugar refers specifically to sugar produced on the southern slopes of the Asan Mountains (i.e., Tokushima Prefecture), which is known as "Awa no Kuni" (Awa Nation). In particular, awa wasanbon is produced in the northern part of the Prefecture in Kamiita Town, Itano District (*Note: sugar varieties from Kagawa Prefecture are called Sanuki wasanbon). 

The area where Awa wasanbon is produced lies on the alluvial fan that extends south from the Asan Mountains. This means that even though it receives plentiful sunlight, the soil is well-drained, and during the Edo period, when there was no irrigation water, it became challenging to maintain rice paddies, making it a difficult area to grow rice. Legend has it that when a traveling monk stopped by, he told the locals that sugar cane was being cultivated with similar soil in Kyushu. A young man named Maruyama was one of the ones that heard this. It is said that he then went alone to Hyuga Province (in the area of southeastern Kyushu, corresponding to modern Miyazaki Prefecture), brought sugarcane seedlings and manufacturing methods and laid the foundation for sugarcane cultivation in this area.

To provide a more general overview of the historical context, it is said that it has been over 200 years since sugarcane was first cultivated in this region. Sugarcane cultivation in Japan started when Tokugawa Yoshimune encouraged sugar production and industry. The “bamboo sugar (chikutou variety)” which is the raw material for wasanbon sugar is believed to be a native variety and has remained well suited to the region since this time. Initially, before the war, awa wasanbon was produced in large quantities as domestic sugar. In Tokushima Prefecture, awa wasanbon became a product on par with indigo (Ai, the famous Japanese dye with origins in Tokushima). Yet, as cheaper refined sugar was imported from Taiwan and other countries after the war, its role as sugar for the general public diminished, the number of producers decreased and the cultivation area also decreased. 

Nowadays, due to its distinct flavor and taste, it is mainly used as sugar for traditional Japanese confectionaires (wagashi). Consequently, because of its use for wagashi, wasanbon disappeared from areas where its quality was poor, and even though the number of cultivation areas saw a momentary uprise, it can be said that eventually, only those areas where very high quality sugar cane can be made remained. That being said, if you are an avid Japanese tea drinker, you may have already been exposed to wasanbon sugar. This is partly owing to the fact that there has been an increase in interest in wagashi, ever since traditional Japanese cuisine (washoku), was added to the UNESCO list in the year 2013 as one of the world’s “intangible cultural heritage”. What is more, wagashi makes a great compliment - both with respect to taste but also due to the appealing appearance - to Japanese green tea and has historically been served together with tea since the Edo period (1603-1868). 

During the Edo period, when today’s commonly used white sugar was not widely available, wasanbon’s restrained sweetness and faint aroma gave wagashi its delicate flavor. Today, the pairing continues! Photo above is a koicha (thick matcha) served with wagashi at Ippodo, in Tokyo, Japan.

Today, Awa Wasanbon is still cultivated and manufactured in Kamiita Town, Itano District, Tokushima Prefecture, as well as the neighboring Donari Town. Due to the more recent food trend, which places emphasis on high quality products, wasanbon has become well-known and can even be seen in department stores in Japan as a luxury ingredient. Conversely, similar to the general agricultural trend in Japan, it is also true that wasanbon cultivation is likely to decrease in the coming years due to the aging of agricultural workers and the decrease in the number of farmers themselves.

How does Wasanbon sugar differ from common sugars? 

One of the reasons why wasanbon sugar is significantly different from commonly used sugar lies in its raw material. The raw material for wasanbon sugar is sugar cane, just like the sugar one uses at home (e.g., caster sugar and granulated sugar). While these sugars are all quite similar to one another, the key difference of wasanbon sugar lies in the variety called “chikutou” (in Japanese, 竹糖). This variety is quite different in comparison to the varieties grown in Okinawa Prefecture (Japan), Taiwan, and Cuba with its characteristics being it is relatively short in height and quite thin. When it is fully grown, the chikutou variety is approximately 2 meters tall (with the topmost leaves included) and is only about as thick as an adult's index finger. Because it is neither tall nor thick, the size of this type of sugar makes it clearly at a disadvantage when considering the yield per unit area. Still, the raw taste of sugar cane is the reason why this sugar cane is still cultivated.

Another difference of this chikutou cultivar lies in its cultivation method. When one thinks of sugarcane, we may associate it with the summer time. However, with the chikutou cultivar, the harvest season occurs in December and the matured sugar cane is harvested along with its roots. Since sugar cane has small buds attached to its joints, some of the harvest is left behind. The joints are then cut to an appropriate length and planted in April. Below, is the annual cycle of a sugarcane farmer: 

Early April: seed millet (joints) is dug up

Early April: plant 

Several times of weeding and watering

Mid-November: next year’s seeds (joints) are planted

From late November to December, harvest

December: sugar refinery starts to accepts sugar cane

Experiencing the art of wasanbon making

The delicate flavor of wasanbon is best appreciated in dry sweets made by simply pressing the sugar in a mold. These elegantly shaped wasanbon sweets are commonly paired with matcha in a traditional ceremony and tea cafes but they can also be purchased in tea shops and department stores in Japan (do note that dry sweets that are sold commercially may include other ingredients to prevent the disintegration/decay during transit, etc). In Japan, you can experience traditional wasanbon sweet making by visiting a sugar refinery in Tokushima and Kagawa Prefectures where you will actually see the sugarcane fields by the refinery (e.g., see: an article which touches on visiting Hattori Sugar Refinery in Awa, Tokushima Prefecture), or one can experience similar wagashi making experiences in Tokyo that are just for a few hours long. Finally, while it may be rare to come across the nicely molded and shaped wasanbon sweets overseas; at Yunomi, there is wasanbon sugar from Mitani Sugar, a manufacturer that has been producing this traditional sugar cane for eight generations. If you like to put sugar in your tea, or make your own sweets, this sugar may specifically go well with Japanese tea! Moreover, the sugar producers claim the charm of wasanbon goes well beyond tea…coffee, alcoholic beverages, cooking and baking. 

 Mitani Sugar's delicate and delicious wasanbon: You can see images of the wasanbon making process as well as a video (in Japanese) from an interview

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Featured image: wasanbon sugar by cheetah from photoAC. 

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