Mochi for Spring

The story behind a Japanese confection that came to be 300 years ago

Photo: DAJ/Getty Images

What is sakura-mochi?

Sakura-mochi is a type of wagashi, or Japanese confection made with sweet azuki bean paste wrapped in sticky pink mochi rice and a salted sakura leaf. Unlike traditional wagashi desserts, sakura-mochi has a slightly herbal aroma to it, and the salty-sweetness from the leaves is said to pair well with sake. The earthy scent of the flower is immersed in the starchiness of the mochi, which creates a delicate layer of complexity in the flavor.

The story behind it

Sakura-mochi was said to be founded at a shop near Chomeiji Temple around 300 years ago. The temple is located near the Sumidagawa River, known for having a lot of sakura trees growing along the bank.

As the story goes, there was a gatekeeper there who swept the sakura leaves in the spring. He thought that the fallen leaves were such a waste, and so instead of throwing them out, the gatekeeper decided to take the sakura leaves and preserve them in saltwater and use them to wrap leftover mochi. They were instantly popular.

Today the Sumidagawa River is famous for its sakura trees and their pink blossoms, where you’ll also find a handful of confectionery shops lined up selling sakura-mochi in the springtime.

Illustration: Kaki Kokumura

Seasons, nature, and naming of sakura desserts in Japanese tea ceremonies

Traditionally, wagashi is interconnected with nature, and many Japanese people will speak to particular confections that allow one to experience the seasons with taste.

Japanese tea ceremonies as we know them today were first founded by Sen Rikyu, a man considered to be the most profound tea master in Japanese history.

A portrait by Tōhaku Hasegawa, calligraphy by Sōen Shunoku. Credit: Omotesenke Fushin’an Foundation via Wikimedia Commons

His teachings were based on Zen Buddhist principles of harmony, respect, purity, and tranquility, and that every element in the tea ceremony room should naturally fall in line with the other. To adhere to these principles, Sen Rikyu would ask confectionery shops to specifically design pieces that would precisely follow the theme and season of the ceremony.

For example, a sakura dessert would not be a simple sakura-mochi, but in tea ceremonies would be designed in a way that would make the individual think about a specific point in the sakura’s lifecycle. It could be from when the flower is just budding, in full bloom, or even after its petals have fallen and created a pink blanket of flower petals down a river. This part of a sakura’s life cycle is called hanaikada, which translates to “flower raft,” because the fallen petals almost look like a pink raft when floating down a river.

Photo: Suneo1999 via Pexels

In the traditional East Asian lunisolar calendar, the seasons are actually divided into 24 solar terms, instead of the four often used today. Rather than specific dates, they are based on patterns from nature such as when early crops begin to show their roots or when the colors of autumn leaves have deepened.

Considering the 24 solar terms, wagashi shops would design pieces to match this timing of the seasons perfectly for Japanese ceremonies. Imagining the difference in the springtime between when the sakura buds begin to peek out from the branches to when they slowly begin to bloom into their pinkish-white colors, to when they fall into a hanaikada, each piece would carry a different sentiment.

Memories of sakura-mochi

Sakura-mochi is not just a seasonal delicacy; its appearance has strong ties with memory.

For students in particular, the spring sakura season falls in line with the end of the Japanese school system’s term. For seniors, there can be mixed feelings of joy and accomplishment, as well as a bit of melancholy. The appearance of sakura-mochi marks a moment of change.

Illustration: Kaki Okumura

For children and families, the onset of sakura season means warmer and sunnier weather and uplifted spirits. People spend more time outside with their loved ones, drinking and eating sakura-mochi under the shade of the pink trees. Unchanged in its simplicity and taste throughout generations, the annual tradition of enjoying sakura-mochi under the cherry blossom trees is a grounding and comforting event for many individuals.

Sakura-mochi is a simple and modest dessert, but maybe its resistance to trends is what makes the sweet so special. The saltiness of the leaf and sweet, floral aroma of the sticky, pink mochi evokes a certain fondness that many others share. Born out of tradition with the seasons and a bit of creativity, sakura-mochi is unique because you can taste the memories of spring.

Illustration: Kaki Okumura

Special thank you to Yasuharu Mizuhara, a fourth-generation owner of well-known wagashi shop Seigetsudo, for informing this piece. He spoke to me about wagashi and taught me about the details and history of this confectionery.

If you enjoyed this piece, please let me know at kokumura@kakikata.space! If you have any questions or comments for me, please don’t hesitate to reach out — I love to share and talk about Japanese food, and would love to hear from you. Warm regards, Kaki

Born in Dallas, raised in New York and Tokyo. I care about helping others learn to live a better, healthier life. My site: www.kakikata.space 🌱

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