Trip to Savor Mochi, a Traditional Good-Luck Food from the Edo Period: Ichinoseki and Hiraizumi
Rice cake, or mochi, is an ancient but still popular Japanese food made of steamed sticky rice pounded in a large mortar into gruel. Sometimes, mochi forms a privileged relationship with local tradition. The Ichinoseki-Hiraizumi area in the Tohoku district is one such example. Here are some of the attractive features of rice cake dishes that are worth trying when you visit this area.
What is “Rice Cake Gastronomy” in Ichinoseki and Hiraizumi?
The Ichinoseki-Hiraizumi area is located in the northeast of Honshu, the main island of Japan. In autumn, you can still witness a traditional landscape of expansive golden rice fields. This vast golden carpet consists of sticky paddy rice plants, the raw material of mochi.
The harvested paddy rice has a high moisture content, which can impair its quality by causing the growth of mold, for example. That is why the harvested rice is laid out to dry in the sun (tempi boshi).
This is an eye-catching sight, looking like people standing in the middle of the paddy field. Tempi boshi, or a rice-drying method using wood (hasagi), is a unique landscape found only in rice terraces, or paddy fields, on mountain slopes. Once practiced for various rice fields, tempi boshi is now a rarity among farmers due to its low efficiency and high labor intensity. Looking closer, you can see that the harvested rice stalks are packed with rice grains.
Ichinoseki and Hiraizumi in Iwate Prefecture form one of the largest granaries in Japan, with a relatively warm climate suited for rice production, despite being located in the Tohoku district which is known for its cold winters. The unique “Rice Cake Gastronomy” was born against this backdrop. Knowing more of its history makes the dishes taste even better…
Ichinoseki-Hiraizumi’s original Rice Cake Gastronomy built on the ingenuity of farmers
Ichinoseki-Hiraizumi’s Rice Cake Gastronomy dates back to the Edo period. The Date clan, which governed the area at that time, designated the 1st and 15th days of each month as holidays, when rice cakes were prepared as an offering for household altars to pray for safety.
However, it is said that although mochi was offered to the gods, poor farmers could not afford those white rice cakes… Instead of white mochi, farmers had to content themselves with shiina mochi, or “non-white rice cakes” made of powdered waste rice mixed with millet and other ingredients. Reportedly, it was the ingenuity of farmers to make their shiina mochi taste better that led to the development of the varied Rice Cake Gastronomy unique to the Ichinoseki-Hiraizumi area. Thus, a look back at the past can provide insights into the local culture.
Diverse rice cakes and their preparation
In Ichinoseki and Hiraizumi, rice cakes are prepared in more than 300 ways. Here are some of the typical rice cake dishes, as it would be impossible to try them all at once. First of all, some rice cake dishes taste sweet, prepared with zunda (mashed boiled green soybeans), bean paste or toasted soybean flour, for example. Other dishes taste savory, served in soup or mixed with natto (fermented soybeans) or mushrooms. You can also try “creative rice cake” dishes with a Western taste, including one served with melted cheese, which is popular with international tourists. Thus, you can witness the continued evolution of Rice Cake Gastronomy in the Ichinoseki-Hiraizumi area. Rice Cake Gastronomy also features a broad range of options to suit seasonal events and rituals. For instance, the traditional and eye-catching kaho mochi is still a popular food for celebrations, and is even offered to tourists in some restaurants.
You may think that those artistic dishes are to be admired, not eaten. Indeed, kaho mochi finds its roots in kaho gashi, an offering to Kobo Daishi (The Grand Master Who Propagated Buddhist Teaching). Those dishes have been passed down to the present day as fortune-tellers, for it is said that kaho (good luck) comes to anyone who happens to take the dish with a bush clover twig. Since the twig is randomly placed, you will feel lucky if you find the twig under your rice cakes. Kaho mochi is also popular as a souvenir, so please check it out.