Monday, December 27, 2010

Birthdays and Issho Mochi... Hopefully You Won't See This Dish on Iron Chef.

24th May, 2008 - It was a big day... actually, this was my last day in Japan for this my fifth trip, and it was L-kun's 1st birthday to boot. Whilst I was about to leave Japan, T-chan and L-kun would stay on a few more weeks to spend quality time with her parents. It was a somewhat bittersweet birthday celebration.

But let's talk about a particular Japanese tradition that's related to first birthdays; known as issho mochi. The first thing to know is that it involves mochi (see exhibit A below)... for those that don't know mochi is a very traditional rice cake made by pounding a glutinous rice down to an even more glutinous paste which is formed into a large flat cake shapes. In this particular (somewhat bizarre) tradition, the issho mochi weighs around 2 kg in total. Now what, pray tell would one do with 2 kg of rice cakes?

Well... first birthdays were very important in Japanese culture, and hence worthy of special attention. Now issho means 1 shō, where shō is an old volume metric equalling 1.8 litres (approximately). Stick with me here, as you never know when that will come in handy - say if you end up going back in time to feudal Japan, for instance, or if you're buying sake, which still comes in measurements of shō to this day. For that matter, the common rice-cooker cup size is 1 gō, where 10 gō equals 1 shō. Sayonara Metric System. When you convert volumes of mochi to weight, it comes out to 1 shō weighs about 2 kg. I didn't say this was going to be easy, did I...

   Now 1 shō is pronounced issho; and it's just that ishho also sounds like (drum roll) "a whole lifetime" in Japanese (by that I mean they are homophones... two different words that have the same sound). Now how the Japanese managed to link all of these things together to come up with a first birthday tradition really beats me. I suspect however that it came down to a very industrious young mochi seller somewhere that had a good sense of occasion. Still, however it happened, the Japanese have linked the 2kg chunk of mochi to wishing their children to have a life time of good luck; a lifetime of never having to go hungry.

So... how does this relate to the tradition? Well, clearly when you combine a 1year old baby with 1 shō of mochi you equal lots of laughs, some tears, and lots of happy mochi sellers. And the best way of combining them is by getting your child to carry the mochi. Yes. Carry. 2kg of processed rice. Ok... they may need some help... enter the bib... this used to be a wrapping cloth (furoshiki) in olden times, but you can't say that they Japanese don't move with the times.

Wearing the appropriate clothing (and disregarding any apparent OH&S implications) the child is weighted down front and back with the huge rice cakes. Ganbatte L-kun (good luck)!

Somewhat surprisingly, L-kun took it all in his stead... and didn't cry at all. He even managed a few steps (but considering this is all he could managed even without the mochi this was quite an achievement)... before retiring to a more sensible posture. Sitting on his bottom.

And the end result was 1 slightly bewildered child, 2 very happy grandparents, and about 2kg of mochi that was not going to get any tastier the longer L-kun wore it. Having said that the mochi was edible (of course), and was indeed eaten. As this was my last full day in Japan however, my contribution to the whole eating thing was sadly limited to a very nice breakfast the following day.

L-kun did eventually succumb to the effects of mochi exertion, and retired for a small nap. I wonder what he was dreaming of? Most probably about all the ways that he could pay back Mum and Dad when he gets into a retirement home.

With the formalities over however, the last night party started. In typical fashion, our last meal was a sushi and sashimi... and even my favourite yakitori. There was also a liberal supply of Australian wine involved as well. It's always difficult leaving Japan... not least because my stomach is normally about 2-3 kg heavier. And that's just from the meal on the last night.

L-kun eventually awoke from his late afternoon nap to enjoy (somewhat sleepily) his own special baby cake. Yes, it's a cake designed to be able to be eaten by babies. Now... I have to admit that the decoration most probably could have been improved a little... and I suspect it looks like something I had decorated. (unfortunately as T-chan and I get to a ripe old age, our food will start to progressively resemble the same sort of thing).

But it apparently hit the spot... going by his smiles. Perhaps because there was no mochi in sight. We had a great night, and L-kun discovered just what a good idea it was to have birthdays in Japan. Lots of presents to be had, and lots of spoiling. And why not... Happy Birthday L-kun!

And a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all of you reading this in 2010!


  1. great photos.
    Have a safe trip back to Oz and a really good New Year.

  2. Great family photo, Happy New Year! ^_^

  3. Happy New Year!

    Wow, learned something new everyday! I had no idea about the mochi tradition. Such a great marketing scheme, especially with the bib!

    Hmm...that cake looks a bit suspicious...(>.<;)

  4. Thanks for that.

    As for the mochi tradition... it's a strange one. But the Japanese love unusual traditions. I'm not sure how they all came to be, and how many started but never quite made it. Makes me want to start my own traditions (most likely this would involve Sapporo beer, tv and underwear... perhaps not such a great tradition after all).

    I have to say - whilst L-kun's b-day cake didn't look the best, it was certainly made with a lot of love-spice. Not sure if that made it tastier, but it nourished our hearts anyway.

  5. Thanks for the clarification. I have lived in Japan two years, and heard only the name of this tradition, but my English speaking friend wasn't familiar with what the tradition entailed. So this post was very helpful!!