Wagashi, which literally means "Japanese sweets," are colorful, often flower-shaped cakes or candies traditionally served with whisked powdered green tea as part of the tea ceremony. The shape, decoration, and colors chosen are supposed to reflect the season, so you see a lot of pink cherry blossoms in spring, red maple leaves in autumn, and camellias in winter. The photos taken here are from early summer, and even if I didn't have dates on my photos, I would know that from the abundance of green leaves, sunflowers, and poppies on display. In the tea ceremony, wagashi are carefully lifted from a communal tray with long wooden chopsticks and placed on a small piece of folded rice paper in front of each participant; the cakey variety are eaten by slicing into slivers or pieces with a tiny bamboo knife.
Though most wagashi involve some combination of sweet bean paste and rice flour, there are variations. In the tray on the right of the picture above, you can see a manju type sweet cake, the white ball at the top, which is a steamed dough wrapped around red or white bean paste. Below it, the brown and yellow squares are a confection consisting of candied chestnuts suspended in a firm bean paste jelly. The pretty green and pink balls at the far lower right are probably made of bean paste through and through, the outside soft and crumbly, the inside a firmer red bean paste. I have to admit, this last kind is not my favorite - there's something just too insubstantial about it. I like my bean paste wrapped in something I can sink my teeth into.
In general, I feel like wagashi are better to look at than to eat. Even though they come in such a variety of shapes and styles, all of them taste pretty much the same, and often more care has gone into the presentation than the taste. However, sometimes you get lucky - the bean paste is perfectly smooth and has been sweetened just barely enough, the lovely flower-like outside layer is either crunchy with sugar or a taut manju skin or a chewy mochi texture. These photos are from Nishiki Market in Kyoto, but any department store will have similar offerings in the food basement. And if you find yourself at a tea ceremony, you'll be able to sample wagashi where it's meant to be, alongside a bowl of frothy green tea.