What does kawaii mean?
While learning Japanese can be a huge hurdle to overcome for anyone, most visitors to Japan have likely made themselves familiar with the word 'kawaii'. A term, an aesthetic, and a culture, Kawaii generally refers to things that are "cute," "innocent" and "pretty."
In Japan, it's pretty easy to fully immerse yourself in the culture of kawaii, with its very essence being available almost anywhere you turn. Yet, for those new to the concept, we believe the best way to experience kawaii is through kawaii food.
When it comes to Japanese kawaii food, there are so many options across Japan that you may be left wondering, "What is the most kawaii food?". In this post, we've included a list and introduction of the top 10 most kawaii foods up for grabs in Japan, to make it easy for you to choose which cute food to go for.
What is kawaii food?
Before we get started, let's take a look at what kawaii food is.
In its most general form, kawaii translates as cute, which means that any food deemed to be kawaii should be adorable or precious-looking in one way or another. Most commonly, this will see foods taking on shapes and designs that are small in size, pastel-colored, and resembling cute characters.
For a more in-depth look at kawaii food, take a look at our video below, where our host Shizuka is joined by internet sensation Ladybeard inside a Tokyo Maid Cafe.
Most kawaii foods in Japan
- Japanese Souffle Pancakes
- Eiswelt Gelato
- Floresta Donuts
- Totoro Cream Puffs
- Kawaii Snacks from Conbini
- Yanaka District's Neko-e-mon
- Tokyo Banana
Available in small star-like shapes and coming in a variety of pastel colors and flavors, traditional Japanese candy konpeito is perhaps one of the most perfect examples of a kawaii food. The candies are also the soul food of Studio Ghibli's adorable soot sprites, which only adds to their kawaii appeal.
Whilst this delicate-looking candy is well known throughout Japan, what many people don't realize is that its roots are actually Portuguese, with the ancestor of the sweet having been introduced to Japan alongside castella cakes during the 16th century by the missionary Luis Frois. It is even believed that Frois used the small sugar candies to bribe powerful Daimyo Oda Nobunaga into allowing him to practice Christianity in Japan.
Another interesting point about konpeito is that there is only one store in Japan that specializes in making the candy. That store is Ryokujuan Shimizu which is located in Kyoto's Sakyo ward. This store makes konpeito using a hand-making method that hasn't changed since the Edo era, with konpeito artisans taking up to 20 years to master the craft.
The process itself takes 2-3 weeks of coating and rotating a core of sugar with sugar syrup. After some time the center begins to crystallize into bumps, giving the candy its typical star-like shape. According to konpeito craftsmen, they have the ability to "hear" when the candies are ready and must adjust the heating temperature, angle of the drum and the amount of sugar syrup used depending on the sound of the konpeito.
Despite the fact that only one store in the whole of Japan seems to have mastered the craft of producing konpeito, containers of the small candies can be bought from traditional Japanese "Dagashiya" candy stores, souvenir shops, and even from some local supermarkets.
If you're looking for a more quirky type of kawaii food, you need look no further than the taiyaki. Despite its subaquatic looks, the only thing that's fishy about taiyaki is its appearance, with the main ingredients consisting of pancake batter and a variety of sweet fillings.
So why the fish-shaped design? Legend tells that Edo era imagawayaki vendor Seijiro Kobe decided to boost sales by changing his sweets into a design resembling the tai fish, which in Japanese culture symbolizes luck and good fortune. The adaptation was a hit, and the cakes soon became known as taiyaki.
The original taiyaki store run by Seijiro Kobe, Naniwaya Sohonten, can still be found in Tokyo's Azabujuban district to this very date.
The shape and design of this pancake-like dish has been likened to Pokémon's Magikarp, with one particular taiyaki chain – Kurikoan – even having started a popular campaign where the cakes are shaped into designs resembling the water type pokémon.
Japanese Souffle Pancakes
Ever wondered what eating clouds might feel like? Well, make a b-line past those sticky cotton candy stands and head over to your nearest Japanese pancake store.
Soft, airy, and fluffy, nothing is quite as heavenly as a classic Japanese souffle pancake, with the key to making such a light dish lying in the use of whisked egg whites. If you want to taste test a plate of these fluff-tastic creations there are plenty of stores across Japan to choose from, but for the sake of satisfaction, we recommend trying a stack at a Flippers Pancake House or at any Gram cafe.
Kawaii food in Harajuku at Eiswelt Gelato
A list of all of Japan's kawaii food would not be complete without a mention of Tokyo's (and quite possibly all of Japan's) most kawaii district of Harajuku.
Whilst finding kawaii food in the culture-rich area used to be as simple as heading over to the Kawaii Monster Cafe, the closure of the restaurant and entertainment venue back in January of 2021 marked the end of an era. But, just because the Kawaii Monster Cafe has left the scene doesn't mean that the cuteness has gone with it. In fact, a stroll down Harajuku's Takeshita Street will prove that the area is still oozing with plenty of kawaii.
There are a few honorable mentions of kawaii foods available in Harajuku, including rolled ice cream, rainbow cheese toast, and the iconic crepes from Marion Crêpes. However, if we had to choose one winner the crown would go to Eiswelt Gelato, which specializes in making the cutest gelato stacks resembling adorable animals. With more than 11 flavors to choose from, and the ability to pile animals on top of one another Eiswelt Gelato is the perfect choice for those looking for the most kawaii instagramable food.
Eiswelt Gelato can be found tucked into the corner at the most eastern end of Harajuku's Takeshita Street, which means it's conveniently located near a plethora of other must-visit eateries such as those included in our blog post introducing places to eat in Harajuku.
Next up is the donut chain Floresta Donuts which specializes in using natural ingredients to make animal-shaped donuts that are almost too cute to eat. As a treat that looks good, tastes good and is also good for the body, Floresta's animal donuts are the perfect choice for those wanting something sweet to chow down on, yet are not willing to compromise on health.
Whilst the store has a selection of popular in-house animals to choose from, they're also known for occasionally teaming up with Japan's number one kawaii company Sanrio, for whom they've made collaborative donuts with designs resembling gudetama, hello kitty and even pompompurin.
Originally Floresta Donuts was run by a husband and wife team based in Nara Prefecture, but after gaining great popularity the brand now has stores located all across Japan.
Whilst we could ramble on about the cutest of Japan's food creations all day, how about taking a coffee break with one of the most kawaii lattes you've ever seen?
Located just south of Asakusa's Sensoji Temple is HATCOFFEE, which from the outside appears as a hipster cafe nestled into one of Tokyo's backstreets. Step inside, however, and you'll actually be entering a gallery where the baristas work their magic to turn coffee into both 2D and 3D pieces of art.
Visitors can choose from a range of designs mastered by the barista, or they can challenge him and request a 2D or 3D latte art design using an image provided by themselves.
Totoro Cream Puffs from Shiro-Hige's Cream Puff Factory
If you're a Ghibli fan then these totoro-shaped cream puffs available at Shiro-Hige's Cream Puff Factory in Tokyo's Setagaya ward are the perfect kawaii creation for you.
As the only bakery in the world to have been given permission from Hayao Miyazaki himself to produce Totoro-shaped treats, there's an air of authenticity that comes alongside each and every one of Shiro-Hige's Cream Puff Factory's Totoro cream puffs.
While the store isn't located too far away from Setagaya-Daita station, the walk through the residential streets to reach it can be a little confusing, so it's best to come prepared with your navigation hat on and to keep a lookout for the hand-painted signs featuring Totoro that lead the way.
Kawaii snacks from the chilled section of your local conbini
Although it's fun to search around for the cutest kawaii foods at all of the unique stores and cafes Japan has to offer, sometimes we just want to pick up something close to home, and for that, there's one place that never fails to impress – the local convenience store.
Whether your most trusted conbini is Lawson, FamilyMart, or 7-Eleven, you can be sure to find a selection of kawaii foods stocked up on the shelves in the chilled aisle. These treats normally take the form of mochi, wagashi, or bite-sized western cakes, and are often shaped into designs resembling adorable characters from popular TV shows or video games. These sweets are always rotating, with new designs making their debut every 3 to 4 weeks.
Kawaii food and drink at Yanaka District's Neko-e-mon cafe
Located just east of the Yanaka shopping district, Neko-e-mon is a small local cafe inspired by all things cat. Inside you'll find cakes, puddings, biscuits, and drinks that come in a variety of shapes, patterns, and flavors representing our feline friends. From paw print cookies to cat-shaped eclairs and puddings served up in an adorable cat-like container, there's plenty of kawaii on offer at Yanaka's Neko-e-mon cafe.
A small-sweet-turned-cultural-icon of Japan's capital, when it comes to kawaii food no list would be complete without mentioning Tokyo Banana.
At just a few inches in length, Tokyo Banana is, in its most basic form, a small sponge cake filled with cream that takes the shape of a banana. However, the brand is also known for its collaborations and has recently been teaming up with a wide range of characters loved by individuals of all generations. Some of these adorable mash-ups include designs inspired by Pokemon, Doraemon, and even Disney.
While the easiest place to pick up a box of Tokyo Banana is at the souvenir hall of Tokyo Station, the treats are so popular that you can often find them in your local conbini.
How do you make kawaii food?
Though many of the foods listed above require a great deal of time and patience to master, making kawaii food at home is not an impossible task. From the decoration of cakes to the careful curation of foods into shapes and designs that resemble artwork, there are plenty of different ways to make kawaii food at home.
Here at byFood we offer a range of kawaii food-related experiences, such as the kyaraben cartoon character bento making class, the Amezaiku Candy Sculpting Workshop, and the Kawaii Ramen and Gyoza Cooking Class.
Never was there a place more perfect for enjoying food that is almost too adorable to eat than Japan. As the home of kawaii culture, there has been a mastery of the art of cutification, from which a variety of irresistibly cute goods and treats have arisen.
We hope this introduction to 10 of the cutest foods in Japan will spark a desire and motivation in readers to head out into Japan's world of kawaii food.