April heralds a new beginning in Japan as the new academic and financial year kicks off. In the old lunar calendar (kyuureki), this month is called Uzuki (卯月), which has a number of interpretations as to how the name came about or what it means. The most widely accepted explanation is that April is the month when the Unohana (also known as Uzuki (卯の花; Deutzia)) blooms. However, the unohana actually blossoms in May if we look at it from a Western calendar perspective, but in the kyuureki, it is the fourth month of the year thus explaining the name’s origin.
In addition, the character 卯 means hare which is the fourth animal in the 12 signs of the oriental zodiac thus making April the month of the hare. Last but not least, April is also when the rice saplings are planted into the soil which rhymes with the term uzuki (種月) – the month of planting; although the kanji characters are written in a different way.
One of the key events in April is hanami (花見), which is sakura blossom viewing. Usually, people gather around famous sakura viewing spots to admire the flowers while eating, drinking and being merry with their friends and families. During this time of the year, many TV programs focus on popular hanami spots, what people are doing there, and how the flowers look at different time periods. Therefore, many people pay close attention to when sakura’s full bloom takes place in order to grab the best spot and see the flowers at their best.
As the sakura tends to bloom for only around two weeks, its fleeting beauty is one which captivates many including Japanese and overseas tourists. So it’s no wonder popular hanami spots are always packed with people.
During hanami, one of the signature wagashi to be eaten is the sakuramochi (桜餅).
There are two main categories of sakuramochi – the Kanto-style and Kansai-style. Let’s take a look at the Kanto-style sakuramochi first.
The Kanto version of the sakuramochi (also known by the name choumeiji (長命寺)) resembles a crepe in the sense that the outer skin, made from wheat flour, is pan-fried before being used to wrap up the red bean filling. In addition, sakura leaves soaked in saltwater are wrapped around the mochi which further accentuates the sakura flavour in the mochi. As for the number of leaves used, it can vary from one to three pieces per mochi. The filling used is the strained red bean paste which is smooth on the palate. As for the shape of the mochi, it can be in the form of a semi-circle when the round skin is folded into half, a rolled-up pipe with the sides exposed or folded like a fukusa (袱紗 – a silk cloth used during tea ceremony to wipe or set utensils on). Although it is fine to eat the entire mochi with the sakura leaves, it is actually recommended to remove the leaves and eat only the mochi, which should have absorbed the flavor and aroma from the sakura leaves.
The Kanto version started during the Edo era as a signature wagashi in the Sumida River area. At that time, the 8th generation shogun, Tokugawa Yoshimune, of the Tokugawa Shogunate ordered sakura trees to be planted along the banks of the Sumida River which led to the development and prosperity of the Mukojima area where the temple Choumeiji stood. Yoshimune then asked Yamamoto Shinroku, the caretaker of Choumeiji to come up with a wagashi using sakura leaves which were meant to be eaten with tea. At that time, due to the abundance of sakura trees, many leaves had fallen onto the ground, which was making it difficult for Shinroku to clean up. So he came up with the idea of soaking the leaves in salt water and using them to wrap around thin mochi and red bean paste. As a result, the Kanto version of sakuramochi was born in 1717 and was first sold outside Choumeiji; thus the temple’s name was used to refer to this type of wagashi.
This version of the sakuramochi is commonly seen in the Kanto and Koshin regions including prefectures such as Shizuoka, Nagano, Ishikawa (Kanazawa City), eastern Shimane, and western Tottori as well as the Pacific side of the Tohoku region including Akita, Fukushima, Iwate, Miyagi, and southern Aomori.
The Kansai version of the sakuramochi which is also known as Doumyouji-mochi (道明寺餅), is made in an entirely different way from its Kanto counterpart. The skin is made from coarse rice powder (道明寺粉; doumyoujiko) or glutinous rice which is then steamed and left to dry before being used to wrap the red bean filling. The earlier version tended to use glutinous rice for the skin so it was only until 1897 that the coarse rice powder was first used in Kyoto to make this wagashi. Even so, due to the coarse rice powder being more expensive than glutinous rice, there are some versions of the doumyouji being made from the latter rather than doumyoujiko.
Unlike the Kanto version, the use of sakura leaves is limited to one or two pieces and the size of the leaves tend to be smaller while the shape of the mochi is usually round or flat. The filling used is the coarse sweet bean paste which has more texture than the strained version. Comparatively, the skin also has a more grainy and chewy texture. In the version (pictured above) which I learnt to make at my wagashi class, dried sakura flowers can be placed on top of the mochi instead of having the leaves wrapped around it. Compared to the Kanto version, it can be more difficult to remove the sakura leaves neatly from the mochi due to the skin’s sticky texture thus it is fine to eat the entire mochi with the leaves.
Generally, whenever people talk about sakuramochi, it is meant to refer to the Kanto version as this came into existence earlier than the Kansai version and it is generally believed that the latter was modified after the Kanto version when it spread to the area. As such, to differentiate between the Kanto and Kansai versions, the use of the name Doumyouji for the latter is more prevalent. The mochi earned its name as it originated from a temple called Doumyouji in Fujiidera City, Osaka Prefecture when monks there created it as a form of food to be offered to the gods as it could be kept for a long time. It became so popular that Toyotomi Hideyoshi even issued a letter of thanks to the temple for the idea.
This version of the sakuramochi can be found in Hokkaido, the Sea of Japan side of Tohoku i.e. Yamagata, Akita and the Tsugaru region of Aomori, the Hokuriku region, Aichi, Gifu, and prefectures to the west of the Kansai region.
How about trying some traditional sakuramochi this month while enjoying what is left of the beautiful sakura blossoms during your hanami session? Do give both versions a try if you can to see which you like best!