Most people know that rice is a prevalent food in Japan. But apart from being a source of nutrition, rice also has cultural and folkloric significance attached to it.
New Year Mochi
Much of Japan’s folklore is based on the concept of animism, due to the ancient Shinto belief that every object has a spirit. This belief extends to rice plants, with many Japanese people believing that they contain good energy. Therefore, eating products made from rice will bring good luck. This is especially true at the beginning of a new year. Mochi, a sticky, sweet cake made from pounded rice, is used as a new year decoration and eaten in early January. This type of mochi is called ‘kagami mochi.’ It is composed of two mochi cakes adorned with daidai (bitter orange) and leaves. It is believed that eating the kagami mochi will bring you strength and luck for the coming year.
Mochi making is also popular in January. Many places have events called ‘mochi-tsuki‘ where community members get together to make mochi. As well as the belief that eating mochi is good luck for the new year, mochi-tsuki is a time to come together and have fun!
I was able to attend a mochi-tsuki event in a nearby town, and it was a great experience. I learned how mochi is made, and got to take part in the process. Firstly, the rice is soaked, usually overnight. Then, it is steamed. Fires were lit, and steamers containing the rice were placed over them. After steaming, the rice is moved into a traditional Japanese mortar, which is called an usu. It is then squashed and pounded with a kine, a large wooden mallet. It’s very heavy and awkward to use, and also scary – whilst the pounding is going on, someone has to rearrange to mochi to keep it in shape. Get the timing wrong and they would definitely end up with broken fingers!
After being pounded, the mochi is placed on a tray of flour and separated into small chunks. These are shaped into balls by first pulling them into a circle, then folding the sides together and twisting so they stick. It’s a lot harder than it looks, because the flour makes the outside of the mochi quite dry. But without it, it would be too sticky.
After that, flavourings are added to the mochi before eating it. We used kinako (roasted soy bean flour, yum!) and soy sauce. It was wonderful to see people of all ages working together to make and eat the mochi.
Rice is also associated with another celebration later in the year. In Autumn, dango (a sweet rice paste ball similar to mochi) is eaten during harvest festivals called Tsukimi or Jugoya. These festivals take place on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month of the Chinese calendar, which is usually a full moon night in August or September. People gather in gardens and at temples to celebrate the year’s crops and the beauty of the moon. Symbolically, dango represents the moon and is eaten as an offering to bring good health.
月の兎 Tsukino Usagi – The Moon Rabbit
Besides good fortune and symbolism, mochi has another connection to the moon. In Western countries, there are stories of the man in the moon. But in Japanese folklore, instead it’s a mochi-making rabbit.
According to legend, an old man who lived on the moon decided to visit Earth. He asked a monkey, a fox, and a rabbit for food. The monkey climbed a tree and brought him some fruit, and the fox caught him a fish. But the rabbit, unable to bring anything, instead built a fire and jumped into it to be cooked. The old man pulled him out and praised his kind sacrifice, and as a reward took the rabbit back to the moon with him.
Other Asian countries also have moon rabbits in their folklore. In China, the moon rabbit is the companion of the moon goddess Chang’e. Instead of pounding mochi, it pounds the elixir of life. In Korea, the moon rabbit also pounds mochi but stands underneath a gyesu tree (Korean cinnamon tree). They also have a mid-Autumn festival to celebrate the moon, which is called Chuseok.
White rabbits are a popular motif in Japan, and can often be found on things like crockery, linen, and chopsticks. Also, fans of the anime Sailor Moon will probably recognise the name ‘Tsukino Usagi.’ Yes – Sailor Moon herself is literally called ‘rabbit of the moon’ in Japanese! That’s also how she ended up being called ‘Bunny’ in the Italian translation.
Personally, I prefer the Asian idea of a rabbit on the moon. As a child, I always found it a little bit creepy to think of the moon as a man’s face watching us every night. Tsukino Usagi is a much-loved and celebrated part of Japanese culture, which combines folklore, food, and nature. Whether eating mochi in January truly brings good fortune or not, it ensures that each new year in Japan begins with community spirit and sharing good food. What a fantastic combination, and hopefully a way for the year to start as it means to go on.