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New Year Holidays in Japan: Mochi

Date Published: Last Update:2015/05/19 Food, Traditional Culture , , , , ,

Japan is home to different types of cakes and snacks. Every prefecture has their own version of a snack. One of the popular food in Japan especially during the New Year holiday season is mochi or the Japanese rice cake.

Mochi

Mochi (餅) is a Japanese food which is made of mochigome (もち米), a short grain japonica glutinous rice. The rice is pounded into paste and molded into desired shape. Though mochi is consumed whole year round, it is traditionally made, sold, or eaten during the Japanese New Year.

mochi

A closer look at a mochi. (Photo by Dani Armengol Garreta on Flickr)

The Yearly Mochitsuki

Mochi is traditionally made through the labor-intensive mochi-pounding ceremony called mochitsuki. The ceremony is usually performed at the end of the year, from around December 25 to 28. The mochitsuki, traditionally, involves the following process:

  • Overnight soaking and cooking of the glutinous rice. Cooking is done through steaming
  • The cooked rice is then placed in a usu (large bowl usually made of wood or stone) and is pounded with kine (wooden mallet). Two to three people will alternate the pounding process: one or two people will do the actual pounding while another will do the turning and wetting of the mochi. They must do it rhythmically to avoid injuries and accidents done by the heavy kine or by a mochi
  • The pounded rice is then formed into various shapes which is usually a cube or a sphere.
mochitsuki

A mochitsuki performed by a community. (Photo by David Pursehouse on Flickr)

If it is done by a family, the tasks is divided into: the father doing the pounding of the glutinous rice, the mother shifting, and the children will do the shaping.

Mochi can also be prepared from mochiko (glutinous rice flour). The four is mixed with water and is cooked on the stovetop or in the microwave.

Kagamimochi

After the mochi is done, some are set aside for divine offerings. It will be made into kagamimochi (鏡餅, literal meaning: “mirror rice cake”). The kagamimochi is a traditional Japanese New Year decoration. It consists of two round mochi of different sizes, the smaller atop the larger, and a daidai (Japanese bitter orange, can be substituted by a mikan) with an attached leaf on top. It is placed in a household Shinto altar or tokonoma (alcove) as an offering to the deities that visit on New Year’s. In addition to the mochi and the daidai, it may have a sheet of konbu (a kind of kelp) and a skewer of dried persimmons under the mochi.

homemade kagamimochi

A homemade kagamimochi. (Photo by ivva イワヲ on Flickr)

The kagamimochi is kept until the first days of January and on the 11th or on the second Saturday or Sunday of January, a ritual is done into break it. The Shinto ritual is called kagamibiraki (鏡開き, literal meaning: “opening of the mirror”). During the ritual, the kagamimichi is broken, by hand or a hammer (not cut with a knife because of negative connotations like “cutting off ties”), into smaller pieces and is cooked or use as an ingredient to different soups. Common soups are shiruko (boiled sweet beans soup) and zenzai (Azuki bean soup).

Nowadays, you can buy a kagamimochi in supermarkets. A mikan (Japanese tangerine) or a plastic imitation is often substituted for the original daidai.

kagamimochi

A decorated kagamimochi. You can buy like these type of kagamimochi in supermarkets for a several hundred yen. (Photo by Jian Awe on Flickr)

Have you tried eating a mochi or participate in a mochitsuki? How was your experience? Share it with us in the comments section below!

References:

1. Mochi. Wikipedia.

2. Kagamimochi. Wikipedia.

3. Mochitsuki. Web-Japan.

4. Partaking of Decorative Mochi (the Cutting of New Year’s Rice Cakes). Web-Japan.

5. Featured image from midorisyu on Flickr.

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