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Kagami Biraki - Celebrating The Transition To A New Stage In Life

2017.01.26 Bookmark

Kagami biraki are ceremonies that mark significant changes in life. Originating in an act performed by a shogun 300 years ago, the act of breaking open a sake barrel marks the start of something new.

Written by Sandrine

Kagami biraki are celebrations that mark significant events occurring during the year or in someone’s life. The most common kagami biraki celebration is held right after the beginning of the New Year and consists in breaking the kagami mochi, the rice cakes made as an offering to the deity of the New Year, and cooking them in a special soup (zoni) in order to eat them.

On the other hand, the ceremony where a sake barrel is broken and opened has become widely performed at sports events, parties, and weddings. Let’s see where the traditions of kagami biraki come from and how they are celebrated today.

Opening Sake Barrels

Kagami biraki - celebrating one transition to another

Translated from Japanese, the term “kagami biraki” means “opening the mirror”. The "mirror" refers to the fact that in the past, the New Year mochi used to be placed as an offering on the same stand that was used for placing mirrors. The terms "to break" or "to cut" are avoided because of their less auspicious nuances, that is why the term "to open" is preferred. The meaning of the term "kagami biraki" refers to the transition from one stage to another. The New Year kagami biraki represents beginning the New Year in an auspicious way.

The traditions of kagami biraki stem from more than 300 years ago from the time of the Tokugawa shoguns. It is said that the fourth Tokugawa shogun opened a sake barrel on the eve of a war, and because the war was won, opening sake barrels in order to pray for a good outcome has become the norm. Since the shogun's first kagami biraki, similar ceremonies continued down in history to symbolize new beginnings and transitions to new stages of life.

The tradition continues in modern times, and the act of opening sake barrels ceremonially is now being performed at weddings, sports events, and parties. The sake barrel is round, symbolizing harmony, and its lid is hit with wooden mallets. Once the barrel is opened and the sake is ready for the participants, it is considered that the transition has taken place.

New Year's Celebrations

The most common kagami biraki is the New Year celebration that falls each year on January 11th. The celebration in this instance marks the beginning of the New Year and is celebrated with foods that are specific to this season. The traditional New Year’s mochi that had been displayed as an offering from the month before, can now be broken into pieces (“the opening of the mirrors”) and cooked in the New Year's soup, known as zoni.

The mochi rice cakes are an important part of the biraki culture and celebration, and the Japanese will buy several mochi cakes to put in each room. In the Shinto tradition, this maximizes the luck and also results in having enough mochi cakes to make a big celebration. To avoid cutting them (which is thought to bring bad luck), they are usually broken by hand or using a hammer. The mochi can then be cooked in the vegetable soup called zoni or in oshiruko (sweet azuki bean soup) and can be served to the guests.

Kagami Biraki in Sports

Kagami biraki - celebrating one transition to another

Kagami biraki is also very important in sports, being performed at various sports events to mark a new season or to initiate new members. In particular, the tradition of breaking and opening a sake barrel has been present in many martial arts communities. It is common for a ceremony to take place in the traditional Japanese martial arts schools in the second weekend of January to mark the beginning of the new semester with the utmost luck.

Although not such a big celebration like the sake barrel opening at a wedding or drinking party, the same act of breaking a sake barrel is performed in the traditional manner like the shogun once did. This variety of the kagami biraki ceremony is more institutionalized, as it simply serves as a symbol for the transition to a new stage and for the celebration of the activities that will be taking place.

How To Experience The Kagami Biraki Ceremony

Kagami biraki - celebrating one transition to another

"New Year's Kagamibiraki Ceremony" - Ukiyo-e work by Yoshu Chikanobu.

If you wish to experience this type of event that is specific to Japanese culture, the New Year kagami biraki is the easiest to participate in. Until early January you can find kagami mochi at supermarkets. There are even already broken kagami mochi on sale, which are meant to be cooked in the New Year's soup.

Kagami biraki ceremonies are performed at various events throughout the year and they usually include a speech and several people hammering to open a sake barrel. Once the barrel is open, it can be served to the guests, and this marks the transition to a new stage. If you are in a sports club, you will most likely witness a kagaki biraki at the beginning of the year marking the new semester. If you have the chance to take part in a wedding party, you can actually take part in the "biraki" ceremony yourself!

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