A few weeks ago, I was in the throes of mochi curiosity while spending an otherwise unremarkable day at jury duty. With long hours, wifi and an urge to learn as much as possible about mochi, here is what I knew by the end of the day.
THE DIVINE HISTORY OF MOCHI
Mochi, or glutinous rice, is a low-yield crop. Because in the olden days farming led to little excess, mochi first entered Japanese culture as a food for the gods. Mochi cakes were used as offerings in Shinto shrines.
Shinto, or “the way of the gods,” is a pantheist religion and one of the few entirely native Japanese traditions (ie, formed without foreign, particularly Chinese, influence). Last summer, a new friend made a very interesting point about Shinto. Although Shinto has a broad array of minor deities, it isn’t an iconographic religion. At my favorite shrine, dedicated to the goddess Inari, you won’t find a single image of the goddess herself. You will instead see images of foxes, the goddess’s messengers, but they are not symbols of devotion. In most shrines, the holiest object – which only the priests are likely to know anything about – is probably a rusted sword or a bronze mirror with some association to the shrine’s patron divinity. Thus, though the Shinto universe is full of gods, you shouldn't expect to see many statues of them on altars.
(Contrarywise, Japanese Buddhism is nontheistic but loaded with iconography. Buddhas here, Buddhas there, and bodhisattvas clumped together by the dozens.)
Many Shinto goddesses (and perhaps some gods? or perhaps not?) keep mirrors as their most sacred objects. The sun goddess Amaterasu once refused to shine, and the other gods used her own reflection as part of a trick to bring her back to the celestial plane. For whatever reason, mirrors are a powerful divine symbol in Shinto.
NEW YEARS MOCHI
Because Shinto has its connection with mirrors, and because mochi started its history as a Shinto offering, the most iconic form of mochi is the kagami (mirror) mochi. This is a New Years decoration in which two different-sized discs of mochi are piled atop each other (a larger one on the bottom, a smaller one above), topped with a Satsuma orange.
I plan to make a kagami mochi later today, and will post a picture soon. In the meantime, feel free to do an image search on Google. Because the internet is for cats, my favorite kagami mochi search results are the ones that show a fat cat with a Satsuma orange balanced on its head.
You are likely to see this three-tiered mochi creation in shrines a well as in alcoves or entryways of the homes of families celebrating the New Years in Japan. The idea is to leave the mochi decoration out through the New Years celebration (traditionally, seven days) and then to eat it. I would imagine though that by the seventh day of the New Year, most traditional Japanese households are pretty sick of eating mochi.
As noted, mochi started out as a just-for-gods food. Some time around the Heian Era (Tale of Genji times), rice production had improved to the level that it became possible for the nobility to share in this divine ambrosia. During New Years celebrations, at least. Over time, mochi consumption expanded to the wealthy classes and eventually became accessible to everyone. Also, over time, mochi shifted from an exclusively New Years food to a generally available consumable, usually offered as a major ingredient in sweets.
AFTERWORD: WHEN IS NEW YEARS?
There are many traditions, rituals and foods associated with the Japanese New Year. Most are Shinto in origin, and quite home-grown. However, the Chinese zodiac plays a huge role in the new year’s iconography (2013 is the year of the snake), and, to throw one more foreign kink in the system, the new year begins on January first. (That is to say, about six weeks before the year of the snake begins on the Chinese calendar.)