At the heart of Himeji station stands a famous stall - Gozasoro, where you can get the country's best imagawa-yakis (今川焼) for less than a hundred yen. Located just by the side of ticket gates, this red bean waffle cake is a perfect treat for the train ride or a quick snack before visiting the castle.
It is hard to resist the hot, fluffy goodness of imagawa-yaki. Crispy on the outside, but fluffy on the inside. The rich buttery flavour (though it doesn't contain any butter) of the waffle cake, quickly followed by the lusciousness of the red bean filling, offer its unique, refreshing taste - making it one of the most popular traditional Japanese confectioneries.
Don't be surprised if you can't find imagawa-yaki on Gozasoro's menu. It has a rather peculiar identity crisis, with more than 10 very different names across the country. And here in Himeji, imagawa-yaki is simply called Gozasoro - the local brand itself that has been perfecting the recipe for well over 60 years.
It may seem like any other imagawa-yakis, but the high quality red bean (apparently sourced all the way from Hokkaido) and the fact that it's freshly made with the tailor-made waffle irons at the stall, definitely took everything up a level except the price. They cost only ¥80 and you can choose from the original flavour - the Gozasoro Red, or the Gozara White with white bean paste, both equally amazing in my opinion, but I would prefer the red for its richer flavour.
If you have some time to spare after having some imagawa-yakis, you should definitely add the Gozasoro factory to your itinerary. Just 15 minutes walk from Himeji station, the factory offers a 30 minutes tour everyday at 10:30 and 11:00 (except Wednesday), that takes you through the magic behind Himeji's best imagawa-yaki, free of charge. It also, surprisingly, has a really neat and modern garden.
The tour, unfortunately, is completely in Japanese, so perhaps it is better to visit with a Japanese-speaking friend. It began with a video that gave us a brief history of the brand and how azuki beans are selected. The guide took us through the "visitor's corridor" and explained the process of turning the beans into sweet, mashy paste. It was a break-taking scenery looking through the observation window, at the two-storey tall caldrons and huge carts filled with endless stream of red bean paste.
The final stop of the tour was the factory restaurant/shop where all Gozasora's products are available in one place, including its ramen and pork bun lineup as well. This factory tour is a great way to explore this lesser known Japanese confectionery and a perfect spot for budget travel around Himeji. And just in case you are really, really into Azuki beans, there is an Azuki beans museum right beside the factory.
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Like many others from Hong Kong, Japan feels like a second home to me. Having been to Japan for more than twenty times, it has never failed to surprise me with something new and exciting. As a Digital Media Arts student at the University of Surrey in the UK, I am keen on using media, particularly photography, to share both my observations and recommendations of the places I have visited around Japan. I hope my content will come in handy, especially when you are heading to the lesser known areas in Japan.