Kagami Mochi Brings Good Luck, Health, and Prosperity in the New Year

Simple kagami mochi decorate this altar in Japan.
Photo by Tamaki Sono via Flickr Creative Commons.

A new year is here, and this Sunday, JANM will be celebrating Oshogatsu (Japanese New Year) along with the rest of Little Tokyo. Our free Oshogatsu Family Festival will welcome everyone with Year of the Rooster-themed activities, crafts, and performances.

Oshogatsu is widely considered the most important holiday in Japan, and there are many time-honored traditions that go with it. We’ve explored a few of those traditions on this blog: mochitsuki, Daruma dolls, and osechi-ryori. Today, in anticipation of Sunday’s festival, we will look at kagami mochi, a traditional Japanese New Year decoration. Among the many exciting things we have planned is a craft activity in which participants will be able to construct and take home their own replica of a kagami mochi.

Kagami mochi basically consists of a large round rice cake (mochi) topped with another, slightly smaller rice cake, which is then topped with a small bitter orange (daidai). The two rice cakes symbolize the year that just passed along with the year that is to come, while daidai is a homonym for the phrase “generation to generation.” Thus, the arrangement celebrates long life, the bonds of family, and the continuity of generations.

Hisako Hibi, New Year’s Mochi, 1943. Hisako Hibi Collection,
Japanese American National Museum.

An additional meaning harkens back to an ancient Japanese myth. The word kagami means mirror, and the round shape of the rice cakes is said to resemble the mirror of the sun goddess Amaterasu. According to legend, the earth went dark when Amaterasu retreated from the world and hid in a cave. She was eventually drawn out with a mirror, restoring light to the world. Thus, kagami mochi also symbolizes the renewal of light and energy that occurs at the start of a new year.

Each family decorates kagami mochi in their own way; variations include a sheet of kelp to symbolize pleasure and joy. It is recommended that several kagami mochi are placed in locations throughout the house, in order to please the various Shinto gods that are believed to dwell there.

An especially elaborate kagami mochi arrangement, made in Peru. Photo by the Japanese Peruvian Association (APJ) via DiscoverNikkei.org.

Kagami mochi are set out around the end of the year, and remain on display until kagami biraki day (kagami breaking day, or “the opening of the mirror”), which usually takes place on or around January 11. On that day, the kagami mochi are broken into pieces with a hammer—never cut, as that would symbolically sever family ties—and cooked and eaten, often as part of a traditional soup called ozoni. This is considered the first important Shinto ritual of the year.

Come celebrate with us on Sunday, January 8, and increase your good fortune for 2017!

To learn more about kagami mochi and other Japanese New Year traditions, we recommend the following articles on our Discover Nikkei site: “Mochi Making Then and Now”; “Oshogatsu Traditions in the United States”; “Mochi Food of the Kami”; and “Happy New Year! Reminiscing about Oshogatsu with Mochi”.

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