Kagami Biraki: A Traditional Ceremony to Open Sake Barrels

  • CULTURE
  • Have you heard of a Japanese traditional ceremony known as kagami biraki? Kagami means “mirror” while biraki means “to open” so kagami biraki means “opening the mirror”. How does one open a mirror exactly? Actually, the Japanese people do not open mirrors during this ceremony. There are two versions of kagami biraki – one where New Year kagami mochi is removed from its place in the home, broken into smaller pieces and eaten, and second version, opening a sake barrel!

    History and Background

    sake pouring

    The kagami biraki ceremony is usually held during occasions such as weddings, opening ceremonies of companies, sports events, and other parties. To celebrate the New Year, kagami biraki is usually held on the 11th of January as odd numbers are considered auspicious in Japan.

    In addition, Kagami biraki is also celebrated in many dojos (traditional martial art schools) on the second Saturday or Sunday of January to allow maximum participation of students. Supposedly, the kagami biraki was first held by the fourth Tokugawa Shogun before an important battle to bless the army with good luck. The battle thereafter was successful so kagami biraki became a popular practice.

    Kagami biraki used to be a samurai tradition back in the 15th century but it has then become a practice of modern martial arts when the founder of judo, Jigora Kano, instituted this practice in 1884 at the kodokan (headquarters of judo community). After that, various martial art schools such as jujutsu, karate and aikido follow suit and began celebrating the kagami biraki to welcome the New Year.

    The Ceremony

    kagami biraki group

    During the kagami biraki ceremony, the lid of the sake is opened using a kizuchi (wooden mallet). Then, a hishaku (wooden ladle) is used to fill the masu cups with sake from the barrel. Masu is a unique-looking cup which is square in shape and was traditionally used to measure rice.

    sake masu

    So why do the Japanese call this ceremony “opening the mirror”? This is because the sake barrel has a round lid and base, so when you open it, you can see the round surface of sake which is said to resemble the moon.

    barrel lid

    I wonder if this kagami biraki ceremony is celebrated by other traditional Japanese martial art schools in other countries. If it isn’t, then it’s a shame as the ritual is such a fun thing to do! Besides that, it would bring teachers and students closer to Japanese tradition and help them to bond!

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