This post is part of a series about the differences in ingredients between Japan and the U.S. When I first arrived in Japan, I had a lot of trouble at times because I wasn’t used to these differences, so hopefully this information is helpful! For the full list of posts in this series, see this page.
Sugar for cooking and sweetening is easy to find in Japan. There are a few main types that I normally see, which are pretty similar to what’s in the U.S., and a few more unusual options.
The biggest difference I see is with white sugar. There are two types – regular white sugar, and granulated. In the U.S., I only ever saw granulated white sugar. The “regular” sugar is cheaper, but it doesn’t flow or pour smoothly like granulated sugar; it forms loose clumps more like what you see with brown sugar. I’ve found that I have to “pack” it in the same way as brown sugar in order to measure properly.
As far as brown sugar, there is a product here called 三温党 (san’ontou) which is processed a little differently, but seems to have basically the same effect as light brown sugar. It has a more complex flavor than white sugar. It’s commonly available, and generally slightly more expensive than white sugar. I never saw any dark brown sugar here for a long time, but recently my store started carrying a sugar from Okinawa called 黒砂糖 (kurozatou), literally ‘black sugar’ which looks similar to dark brown sugar. I haven’t tried using it though. According to Wikipedia, it’s the same as muscovado.
Powdered sugar, on the other hand, is harder to find. Most stores have it, but it’s in very small bags (maybe 1/2 cup to 1 cup) and is rather expensive. Food import stores may have larger bags, but it is still expensive.
As far as liquid sweeteners, honey is easily found in grocery stores. In Japanese it’s called 蜂蜜 (hachimitsu). You can also often find maple syrup, but like powdered sugar, it’s very expensive and found in small containers. There’s another sweetener called kuromitsu (黒蜜) which is very dark brown and is similar to molasses, but thinner in consistency. By the way, if you’re hunting for these liquid sweeteners, I find they are often placed together with the jams and jellies.
Another product is called mizuame (水飴), which is clear and is similar to corn syrup, but it’s made from rice or potatoes. Both kuromitsu and mizuame are used in making sweets and candy. Other, more unusual sweeteners like agave syrup or special honeys can sometimes be found at food import stores. As always, it will be a small, expensive container.
Finally, there’s a type of sweetener you might encounter in cafes called “gum syrup”. The first time I was offered this in a cafe, I didn’t understand the word, even though it’s just the Japanese version of gum syrup (gamu shiroppu) or an abbreviation like gamushiro. Anyway, they’re just little cups of sugar syrup so you can easily mix the sweetener into cold drinks like iced tea/coffee. You can also buy bags of them in the grocery store (kind of like the mini cups of half-and-half they have in the U.S.).
I also noticed at the grocery store that there are some “zero-calorie” sweeteners available, both in liquid and powder form. However, I haven’t closely looked at the ingredients, nor have I tried them.