Kagami-biraki: The Ceremony Held on January 11th to Kick Off the New Year
We’ve introduced you to a few different elements of the Japanese New Year, and today we’re going to look at kagami-biraki. As the ceremony that concludes the festivities of the New Year, kagami-biraki plays a very important role in Japanese culture. Today’s article is packed with notes on methods and points of caution sure to come in handy.
What is Kagami-biraki?
Simply put, it’s the ceremony where the members of a household break apart then eat the kagami-mochi used as decoration during the New Year. Kagami-mochi (“mirror rice cake”) came to be a part of New Year decorations because its roundness represents harmony in the family and its extending, stretchy texture symbolizes hopes for longevity. The gods who were welcomed in the New Year reside in the kagami-mochi, and eating it both bids farewell to the New Year gods and signifies a prayer for health and security in the year to come. Also, for many people the ceremony wraps up the New Year period and gives them an excellent chance to get back into a working mood.
When is Kagami-biraki Held?
Eastern Japan and Hokkaido: January 11; Western Japan: January 15; Kyoto: January 4
Anciently, the ceremony was held all across Japan on January 20, but with the death of the 3rd Edo shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu on the 20th day of the 4th month of the old lunisolar calendar in 1651, it was moved to the 11th to avoid the day of his death. However, this change of date was centered on the culture of Edo (modern Tokyo) and Eastern Japan. It failed to take root in Western Japan, causing differences to remain in the present between regions.
How the Ceremony Happens
The number one most important thing is: don’t use a knife to cut the mochi! Kagami-biraki has its origin in the culture of the old samurai families, and cutting with a knife was held to be ill-fated as it was reminiscent of seppuku (ritual disembowelment). More importantly, the gods of the New Year dwell in the mochi, so it’s no good to simply stick a knife into it. Hence, the rice cakes are usually broken apart by hand or with a wooden mallet. There’s even a language-based taboo present in the name. The “hiraki” in “kagami-biraki” doesn’t mean “break” or “cut” (which are “kiri” and “wari” in Japanese, both of which have connotations of bad fortune and mishap, e.g., “to cut ties”) but instead means “open” in the sense of the opening of new opportunities and chances.
Dishes that Use Kagami-mochi
Used decoratively for the whole of the New Year period, kagami-mochi is quite dried out by the 11th. This makes it best for simmered foods with lots of moisture like shiruko (sweet red bean soup) and zōni (savory rice cake soup), which are both established in the present day as staple dishes of the New Year.
When kagami-mochi doesn’t break uniformly, we suggest turning it into kakimochi, which involves deep-frying the pieces and seasoning them with salt or soy sauce. Though simple, this is a tasty way to use your mochi, so be sure to give it a try! As a type of rice cracker, kakimochi has a very comforting countryside-home flavor to it and works excellently as a snack or a side to drinks.
You can learn more about the various types of rice crackers here
There is a ceremony with a similar name in Japanese culture called “kagami-wari”, where a barrel of sake is opened at the start of something new, e.g. during a commemorative anniversary or wedding ceremony. The sake shops of old called the lid of a sake barrel the “kagami” (“mirror”), and the breaking (“wari”) of this lid came to be associated with the advent of good fortune. Nowadays, you can sometimes hear people call kagami-wari by the same name as the New Year ceremony, kagami-biraki.
Imagine it, the perfect, typical day during the Japanese New Year: eat some zōni in the morning, head out for hatsumōde at a shrine or temple, get home to squeeze under the heated kotatsu and warm yourself with a bowl of shiruko, and then in the evening toast with a cup of sake and snack on some kakimochi!