Breaking into the New Year: The Tradition of Kagami Biraki
New Year’s festivities in Japan are fairly intense and involved compared to their American counterparts. Traditionally, New Year’s is celebrated for over a week after the first of the year and concluded with a ceremony. This ceremony is called Kagami Biraki. Translating literally to “opening the mirror”, the ceremony generally involves breaking apart and eating the traditional Kagami Mochi New Year’s decoration.
Kagami Biraki takes place on January, 11th, considered an auspicious date due to the Japanese association of odd numbers with good luck. For the ceremony, the Kagami Mochi that has been sitting on the household altar in celebration of the new year is broken apart, usually with a hammer, and eaten. By the time that it is eaten, kagami mochi is usually quite brittle and breaks apart into chunks somewhat easily. References to “breaking” and “cutting” want to be avoided for the sake of luck, and as such the word for “opening” is used. The irregular sized chunks of mochi that result from the ceremony are typically put into soup-- either savory ozoni or sweet red bean zenzai-- and enjoyed by household members. While a solid block of mochi is traditional for Kagami Mochi, many modern versions feature instead a hollow plastic sculpture of Kagami Mochi filled with individually wrapped pieces of mochi. This is not only easier to open, but has a tendency to keep better in houses with modern heating.
Kagami Biraki is also practiced in sports, albeit in a slightly different fashion. Within sporting and martial arts communities, a barrel of sake is opened at the beginning of the new season as a welcome to both the new year and new members. This tradition of kagami biraki is said to originate from the time of the shogunate, around 300 years ago. Shoguns would open a barrel of sake on the eve of war, to pray for victory in the coming days.The ceremony continues today as a symbol of new beginnings and transitions to new stages of life.