Wasanbon is a fine-grained Japanese sugar, traditionally made in Tokushima and Kagawa. The sugar is often used for Japanese sweets (wagashi). The sugar is made from thin sugarcane plants grown locally in Shikoku, called taketō or chikusha. These names mean ‘bamboo sugar’, reflecting the bamboo-like appearance of this type of sugarcane.
An elaborate eight-stage process is required to produce refined sugar from the cane. This takes about twenty days, so the final product is expensive. It has a light golden colour, with granules slightly larger than icing sugar. It’s only mildly sweet, with a unique aroma and flavour, reminiscent of butter and honey.
Wasanbon is used in many kinds of traditional Japanese confectionery, but perhaps the best way to enjoy it is as the little cakes also called wasanbon, where the sugar is pressed into elegant moulds. These are usually served with matcha, slightly bitter green tea, which they complement beautifully.
The wasanbon moulds themselves are exquisite works of art and craftsmanship, hand-carved to represent flora and fauna, heraldic symbols and other designs. They’re all made by one man, Yoshihiro Ichihara, the only practitioner of this traditional woodworking art in all Shikoku.
At various places in Tokushima and Kagawa, you can try making wasanbon yourself. The method is simple but engrossing. The powdery sugar is spooned into the mould and pressed firmly into every part with the thumbs. Then a thick wooden spatula is used to shave off the excess, making the sugar level with mould. The mould is then deftly flipped over to remove the finished cakes, which are then placed in a box to take away as a souvenir. The sugar comes in various pastel colours, which can be artfully combined in the mould to create a more naturalistic finished work.
This pleasant activity can be completed in about an hour.