“M” is for Mochi

Mochi-tsuki, the Old-Fashioned Way

January is a time to make the sticky rice cakes from glutinous rice. It is a tradition to make it at the coldest time of year. Although today people make mochi with an electric machine that steams and then kneads the rice, pounding the rice in a stone mortar is still carried out at special events at schools and neighborhood groups.


Today, we held such an event at the church and mothers and children form around the neighborhood showed up in spite of the 2 degree C temperatures! There was a good turn out (about 45 people) and it was actually my first experience of making mochi the traditional way.

Rolling Balls of Mochi

Rolling Balls of Mochi

I want to extend a particular thank you to Ms Katayama who took over the job of “turning the rice” while each person took turns at pounding it with a huge mallet. If the timing were off, she would have her fingers smashed! But all came off without mishap and the children enjoyed eating mochi with kinako, sweetened soy sauce or zenzai.

Katayama-san at right

Katayama-san at right

Kie-chan (Today was her 8th Birthday

Kie-chan :Today was her 7th Birthday

Kagami Biraki (Breaking the Mirror Cakes)

One of the traditional events at year-end is making sticky mochi rice cakes to eat on New Year’s Day. First ,the mochi rice is steamed, then kneaded by machine or pounded with a mallet until it is soft and sticky. Then we work quickly to pull off pieces of hot mochi and roll it  on the palm of our hand until it’s round. It’s very hot and we have to work quickly before it cools so this part is kind of like pulling hot taffy!


Japanese always make two larger ones to stack and put on the Shinto altar. One is slightly smaller and goes on top. A daidai, similar to a mikan orange is placed on top of that. These rice cakes are called kagami mochi. or mirror rice cakes, because the shape is like that of a round copper mirror, an object of religious significance in Shinto.


The two mochi signify many things: the going and coming years, the yin and the yang,  the moon and the sun. Daidai also means “from generation to generation’ in Japanese so it represents the hope that the family line will continue and be blessed.

The kagami mochi is placed either on the Shinto altar or in the tokonoma, a special alcove located in the main room of the house. This alcove is used for displaying scrolls or flower arrangements. The mirror cakes are displayed here all during the New Year’s holidays. By the second week, they become dry and cracked.


From olden times it was the custom in samurai households to break the mochi cakes on January 2oth and make a kind of soup (ozoni). Later the date was changed to January 11th, and today the custom is observed on or around that date.  To the samurai, the word “cut” or “slash” was not fortuitous and so the large cakes of mochi were broken with a wooden mallet instead of cut with a knife. Thus the name kagami biraki or breaking up of the rice cakes.


Instead of savory ozoni, these days most people enjoy the toasted rice cakes in sweet bean soup called zenzai. it is served hot and feels good in your tummy on a cold January day. Here school children are enjoying the treat.


If you have the small red beans, this treat is easy to make.  Cover 250g of beans with a liter of water, bring to a boil and then discard the water. Repeat. This is to get rid of the bitterness. Now cover the beans with water and cook until soft , about 40 minutes. Add 200 g of sugar, a little water (200 cc) and a pinch of salt. Cook an additional 10 minutes. Grill a rice cake in the oven toaster or broiler until it puffs up and is lightly browned. (It burns easily so watch it!) Add to the hot soup and eat immediately! ( I hope you can find mochi rice cakes at a Japanese grocery store! They are usually individually wrapped and will keep for a long time!)

God bless your family this year!


3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. beckynielsen
    Jan 16, 2013 @ 14:48:43

    I just love reading about these different customs! Thanks, Leah!


  2. cheerfulwoman
    Mar 01, 2013 @ 01:03:30

    I have to try this! I meant to this year, but I always get distracted… I wish I’d had your explanations while I was living in Japan. (^_^)


  3. leahmama1
    Mar 01, 2013 @ 03:52:47

    Come back again. We’d be glad to put you up in Hiroshima for a few days!!


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