Kagami Mochi – Let's welcome the Japanese New Year with traditional rice cake
Mochi is a glutinous rice cake that can be enjoyed in many varieties in Japan. Some are sweet and soft, some come in hard shape meant for cooking.
Every late November until the beginning of January, you will start seeing two layered mochi varieties in different sizes for sale in supermarkets, convenience stores and food stalls everywhere. If you ever wondered what these white two layered products were, let’s take a look into the tradition of the “kagami mochi.”
The kagami mochi tradition stems from the Muromachi period of Japan (the years between 1336–1573 in Japan's history), and is used to welcome the New Year. It is said that this particular mochi contains the “toshikami” — a new year’s spirit that will visit you to bring good luck into the new year. Japanese people will usually have more mochis in their homes, and place these at very visible places around their homes for decoration. Placing them in different rooms is said to bring more luck, as each room will call for more kamis.
Kagami mochis are easily identifiable by their two layers and decorations. Its two shaped form is made of a bigger piece of mochi on the bottom, with the smaller one of top. Decorations include the Japanese citrus fruit, daidai, on top, as well as an attached leaf. Sometimes the decorations may include other fruits and sea vegetables, depending on which price class you opt for, or the area you are located in. The tradition of the kagami mochi is that it will be broken and eaten in the New Year, but the mochi itself serves as a decoration in the time leading to this celebration.
When displayed, the mochi is usually placed on a “sanbo” — a stand for displaying the mochi, but it's also okay to just use a tray for it.
“Kagami biraki” is the the name of the day when you can finally break and eat the mochi that you have displayed since December until almost two weeks into the New Year. Kagami biraki falls on the 11th of January every new year. Some families might celebrate the breaking of the mochi with a party or big celebration, while others are content with just breaking the mochi itself. Depending on where you live, or the family’s tradition, Japanese people will cook the broken mochi into a vegetable soup, while others might use the broken pieces in oshiruko (sweet red bean soup). If you think it’s difficult to break the mochi, but still want to participate in kagami biraki for the new year, supermarkets will often sell bags of broken mochi pieces ready to be cooked in the new year soup.
Where to buy
Kagami mochis are widely available from November until January, coming in different sizes and prices. If you want to get one for yourself, a smaller one will suffice, but if you plan to have a bigger celebration when it’s time for the kagami biraki, a bigger decorative mochi will perhaps be a better option. You might want to get several, if you want to keep within shinto traditions and maximizing your luck for the New Year.
100-yen shops like Daiso (as well as convenience stores) carry the smaller mass produced varieties for ¥108. These come without the decorations, but are the cheapest on the market.
Bigger supermarkets and department stores will have the bigger kagami mochis, usually with a wide selection of sizes and decorative boxes. Some of the decorative boxes will also include fold out sanbos, for displaying your mochi.
The prices for these will range from ¥200 and up, depending on what kind of decoration and size they come in.