Updated: Apr 26
What are the customs and foods of " Koshogatsu " in Japan?
Have you ever seen Kagami-mochi ( literally, "mirror rice cake" in Japanese), which Japanese people decorate their altars and alcoves with during the New Year holidays? Kagami-mochi is round rice cakes stacked in two tiers displayed during the New Year's holidays. On January 11th, people have a custom of "Kagami-biraki," or Opening the mochi and eating the crushed pieces. There is also a fire festival to burn New Year's ornaments, and a custom called " Koshogatsu," in which people eat red bean gruel, warm soup, and other unique foods is held on the 15th in many parts of Japan. This article will introduce these two events and the foods associated with them. Table of Contents 1. Basic knowledge about rice cakes 2. What is Kagami-biraki? The correct answer is "to open," not "break"! 3. What is "Koshogatsu"? Its meaning, customs, and foods 4. Summary 1. Basic knowledge about rice cakes
Japanese rice cakes are made from sticky glutinous rice(mochi rice) steamed and pounded until it becomes smooth. Mochi is made from glutinous rice, which is different from the "Uruchi rice" that Japanese people regularly eat for rice. In the mochi making, they pound the sticky rice with steaming hot and then finish ponding; they hurriedly form it into the desired shape. Mochi becomes hard when it cools down and can be stored. Freshly made soft rice cakes are enjoyed, seasoned with bean paste, soy sauce, or soybean flour mixed with sugar.
Mochi is an essential food for celebrations, not only at New Year's but also at various festivals and annual events. Neighbors and relatives are used to gather to pound mochi and share the rice cakes during festivities and ceremonies. Mochi comes in different shapes and flavors and is eaten for seasonal celebrations.
2. What is Kagami-biraki? The correct answer is "to open," not "break"!
Kagami-mochi is round rice cakes stacked in two tiers displayed during the New Year's holiday. Kagami-mochi comes in various sizes, and the items used to decorate them vary from region to region and from house to house. The disk-shaped rice cake is made to look like an ancient mirror. In Japan, it has been believed since ancient times that deities reside in mirrors and that the New Year's deity welcomed at New Year's live in the Kagami-mochi. At the end of the New Year period, the rice cake in which the New Year's god resides is brought down from the altar, broken open, and eaten. Since rice cake pieces are hard, the Japanese use them in soups such as Oshiruko(sweet red bean soup) and Zo-ni(soup with mochi), or as Arare (rice crackers made by cutting or crushing mochi into small pieces, baking, or deep-frying them, and seasoning them. The name "Arare" also means "hail" in Japanese).
At Kagami-biraki(Ceremony of "Opening" Kagami-mochi), people eat rice cakes, which are believed to be inhabited by the gods, to share their power and wish good luck and good health for the year. "Cutting" Kagami-mochi with a knife is considered bad luck because it reminds us of "seppuku," the act of a samurai committing suicide in disgrace. So they started to use a wooden mallet to break them into small pieces and started using the word "Opening" instead. Since the Edo period, this samurai-style has spread to the general public and has taken root. In reality, you have to "break" the dry and hardened Kagami-mochi as shown in the photo, but the word "break" also has a negative feeling, so people began to say "open" to describe as the gods come out of the Kagami-mochi.
Kagami-biraki" also has another meaning. Kagami-biraki" also refers to the ritual of breaking the lid of a large barrel of sake with a mallet at a wedding ceremony, company inauguration ceremony, or memorial ceremony. In this case, "Kagami" refers to the round top lid of the sake barrel. Mochi and sake, made from rice, are both inseparable and have been considered sacred offerings to the gods since ancient times. The concept of receiving the power of the gods by drinking the sake after it is offered to the gods is the same as that of Kagami-mochi.
3. What is "Koshogatsu"? Its meaning, customs, and foods
Following the "Kagami-biraki" on January 11th, there is an event called "Koshogatsu" on January 15th, which is the New Year's Day of the lunar calendar. "Koshogatsu(ko means small in Japanese)" is a name given to the "O-shogatsu(O means Big in Japanese)," which is centered on January 1st of the solar calendar. In many parts of the country, there are still customs to burn New Year's ornaments in fire festivals and enjoy special foods such as red bean gruel and warm soup. Here are some traditional foods that are supposed to be eaten on Koshogatsu. The most common is azuki gruel, rice porridge with soft-boiled red beans added and seasoned with salt. The same kind of azuki gruel is called "Akatsuki (sunrise) porridge" in Miyagi Prefecture. It is believed that the red color of azuki beans has the power to "purge evil spirits," and people ate porridge or zenzai(sweet red bean soup) to pray for good health for the year. As mentioned earlier, in Toyama and other prefectures, people eat sweet zenzai with glutinous rice cake leftover from the Kagami-biraki. In some areas, dumplings are made, or mochi pounding is done during Koshogatsu.
In Yamagata and Aomori prefectures in the Tohoku region and southern Hokkaido, where the climate is frigid, people eat Keno-jiru (photo above), which is made by stewing finely chopped vegetables and beans in a large pot with miso paste. It is said that in the days when rice was precious, the ingredients such as finely chopped root vegetables, wild plants, and mushrooms were eaten as if they were rice, but in the same way, as in other regions, it is eaten to wish for good health for the year. It is a preserved food that women, who are usually busy with housework, make and relax during the New Year holidays. It is customary to eat it together with the family after offering it to Buddha on the morning of New Year's Day. In some regions, "Zunda," which is ground soybeans, is added to make it richer. As a nutritious preserved food, it is customary to make a large amount in a large pot and reheat it over several days. It is a "mother's taste" that differs from household to household in terms of ingredients and preparation methods. (Keno-jiru: Image source: https://www.maff.go.jp from "Our Local Cuisine")
In the southern part of Miyazaki Prefecture in Kyushu, a warm region of Japan, people decorate their alcove, kitchens, and eaves with "Me-no-mochi" (rice cakes) made of red, white, yellow, and green rice cakes stuck on branches. When the rice cakes are put away, they are fried in oil and made into Arare (rice crackers, pictured above). The name "Me" is an old name for "cocoon," and it is said that the name comes from the shape of a cocoon to pray for its fertility. The rice cakes are seasoned with salt, soy sauce, soybean flour, etc., as desired. (Image provided by: JA Miyazaki Prefecture Women's Organization Council, from https://www.maff.go.jp "Our Local Cuisine")
The photo above shows a fire festival held in various parts of Japan during the Koshogatsu period. The people in the foreground are burning dumplings stuck on branches over a fire. Depending on the region, the festival is also called "Sagicho" or "Dondo-yaki," People eat dumplings, rice cakes cooked in the blazing flames and serve zenzai and soup like the ones introduced earlier. What is burned are New Year's ornaments such as Kadomatsu and Shime-kazari (New Year's decorations), talismans, and good luck charms from the previous year. They give thanks for the New Year's ornaments and amulets that have served their purpose for the year, burn them, and eat the food burned in the sacred fire to pray for safety in the house and good health.
In association with the Japanese New Year, we introduced the customs and foods of Kagami-biraki and Koshogatsu, especially those related to rice cakes. Do you have any of them that you would like to try? Fire festivals such as Dondo-yaki are now unique to the countryside and cannot be seen in the cities. Mochi is a symbol of Japan's unique food culture. The country and culture were nurtured around rice cultivation, and various kinds of mochi appear in multiple events throughout the four seasons.
Now that the New Year period is over, all we have to do is wait for the full-blown spring.
The Japanese school year and new semesters begin in April.
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