What is Kagami biraki (鏡開き)?
As many people seem to want to know more about Kagami biraki I decided to share some interesting information that is associated with this event as well as the explanation of the term, Kagami biraki.
Let’s start with the meaning of each word. Kagami (鏡) means “mirror”. Biraki (開き) means to open. So you would wonder how “opening the mirror” is connected with the first training of the year for the martial arts. One must look into the historical background behind this term to understand the event.
During the new year period, an ornamental rice cake called Kagami mochi (鏡餅, photo left) is a standard item in many Japanese houses just as a Christmas tree is in the Western world for the Christmas season. There are many different kinds of Kagami mochi these days but the typical one is constructed with two round mochi with a strip of sea weed, a stick of dried persimons and an orange on the top as shown in the photo. Each part has its specific meaning but I will not go into that in this article.
Mochi is a dried and hard rice cake so it was a perfect portable ration for the samurai to carry when they went to a war and that is exactly what they did during the civil war period (戦国時代) in the 16th century. So, it was their ritual to crack the rice cake after the new year period. The new year celebration ends either on January 11th or 15th depending on the lunar or Gregorian calendar. On that day the family members ceremoniously take down the mochi and break it into small pieces. They eat a piece to gain good health for the year. This breaking a mochi into small pieces and to be eaten by the family members is similar to the idea of Christian sacrament where a priest breaks a loaf of bread and the church members eat the broken pieces.
This samurai family custom has been handed down to the martial arts world and now all across Japan on January 11 or 15, all the dojos of all kinds of martial arts, of course, including karate have Kagami biraki which is the first training of the year (photo below).
Then why do we call the mochi kagami (鏡, mirror)? This was because the shape of the round mochi looked like one of the three sacred tools of Shinto, Yata no kagami (八咫鏡, sacred mirror, photo below). By calling it kagami they made the event into a religious or sacred one.
Then why did they not call it mirror breaking (wari, 割り) like we see in tameshi wari or cutting (kiri, 切り)? Cutting a white round mochi could remind us of cutting the belly in seppuku or harakiri which is definitely bad luck thus they avoided such a word. They chose biraki (開き) which means opening that was better sounding and more appropriate for the occasion. They either cracked with their hands or used a wooden hammer to crack a dried mochi cake (photos below).
This tradition expanded from the ornamental mochi to breaking the top lid of a sake barrel (酒樽) with a wooden hammer (木槌, photos below).
You may know that sake (酒) is considered as sacred drink in shinto and it is used in almost all the shinto events including a wedding (photo right). I also find it interesting as this fact shares another similarity in Christianity where red wine is treated as a sacred drink.
As it came from the samurai custom thus, it has become a standard event for all the martial arts dojos and organizations in Japan. The dojos use the Kagami Biraki ceremony to signify their first practice of the new year. If you are lucky to visit Japan in the first part of January you can attend a kagami biraki where they will offer a bowl of sweet beans after the training. You may wonder why they feed you with this. It is obviously difficult to eat a raw dried mochi so they put the mochi pieces in their favorite dessert in Japan, zenzai (ぜんざい, photo left). You can see the small pieces of mochi in the photo. These days they even skip the mochi in the zenzai and they serve only the sweet beans (汁粉, photo below) which many westerners may have some problem eating them. It is OK not to eat the beans as the real thing to eat is mochi in the true tradition. If you do not like the mochi either then hide the mochi piece under the beans and pretend like you ate the mochi. Or jokingly you can ask for sake instead.
More reading on Kagami biraki: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kagami_biraki