A letter about osechi needs to be followed by one about kagami-mochi (鏡餅) perhaps the ultimate symbol of the Japanese New Year period; even more so if you consider that this letter will be published on January 11, the day when this peculiar foodstuff –half sweet, half savory, at the same time tasteless and with its own subtle taste- is supposed to be broken, always by hand or by a wooden mallet but certainly not with a knife and will get cooked, usually in an ozouni (お雑煮) soup or simply broiled on a grill. The whole process is called “kagami-biraki” (鏡開き) or “opening the mirror” and it’s so synonymous with the ideas of festivity and new beginnings that besides its typical date, it has extended enough to be included in various other auspicious events –weddings, openings, premieres and the like.
The “mirror” in this case doesn’t exist: what is perceived as a mirror –in the name of the mochi pounded rice cakes and the ceremony- are the mochi themselves because they are round and supposedly look like the round bronze mirrors of classical Japan and, even further back, with the mirror in the legend of the godess Amaterasu and from there to Shinto and the emperor’s three symbols. New Year’s mirror-mochi are two, stacked one upon the other and usually above them there is a small, bitter daidai (橙) orange, both for decoration purposes and because the word “dai-dai” written in different characters (代々) means “from one generation to the next”, one more allusion to longevity, a sense of continuation and the Edo period people for puns; the reference to the Edo period is unavoidable because the man who marked its beginning, the first Tokugawa shogun, was allegedly responsible for coming up with the kagami-biraki ritual.
Even non-Shintoists will find it hard not to be thrilled by this complicated game of symbolisms around the two small mochi appearing every December in packages of smooth, matte plastic that looks like it has come out of a Sci-Fi film’s futuristic laboratory; especially when seen in their full ceremonial splendor, sitting stoically like Daruma dolls (which their shape is reminiscent of) on a sanpo (三宝) offering tray together with the dai-dai, the red, white and golden ribbons and the mizu-hiki (水引) twisted paper cords in the kamidana, the home’s Shinto shrine welcoming, like osechi, the spirit of the new year. And not to be moved when they will be broken and eaten, a sacrifice to people’s hope that the days to come will be better than the days gone by.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes on the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.