The beginning of a new year brings lots of promise and hope to all as we start afresh with a clean slate. In the old Japanese calendar called kyuureki, January used to be called Mutsuki (睦月). Other than this term, January was also known by other names such as Mototsutsuki which means “first month of the year” (元つ月), Moyutsuki (萌月) and Umutsuki (生月). Despite many theories on how the name Mutsuki came about, the most commonly accepted theory is that during this month, the family gets together to have a feast which makes it a pleasurable time.
During January, the signature wagashi would have to be the Hanabiramochi (花びら餅) which literally means “flower petal mochi” and was previously known as Hishihanabira (菱花びら). The snack was eaten during the Hagatame no Gi or Tooth Hardening Ceremony (歯固めの儀) at the beginning of the year in the Imperial Palace in Kyoto where people would eat the hanabiramochi containing red hishimochi, burdock, pork, radish, salted ayu (sweetfish) and gourd in it as a symbolic gesture to strengthen one’s teeth thus leading to longevity. Over time, the contents within the mochi skin were gradually simplified to the version we see today e.g. replacing the ayu with burdock and reducing the number of burdock sticks from two to one.
From the Meiji era onwards, thanks to the 11th leader of the Urasenke family (裏千家) getting permission to use this wagashi for the first tea ceremony of the year, the hanabiramochi became a New Year’s wagashi which could be made by wagashi shops nationwide. Now, it is viewed as a sign of happiness and prosperity with its white outer skin and red filling which can be seen from the translucent skin.
The hanabiramochi is made from white mochi which is rounded and folded in half to form a semi-circle after the fillings of anko (while bean paste) and burdock are placed in the centre. The burdock is deliberately cut to such a length that it protrudes from the mochi at both ends. In addition, the mochi is shaped in such a way that it will not be sealed around the contents completely as compared to a daifuku. The ingredients used in the hanabiramochi have special meaning. For example, the burdock is used to represent the ayu which prays for longevity and the red or pink colour which can be seen from the outside is meant to represent the ume (Japanese plum) which is a sign of purity, perseverance and renewal during the New Year.
Do give this wagashi a try next time if you happen to be in Japan during the New Year period!