January 21, 2014
by Miyuki Nakanishi & Mayuka Yamada
May 5th is Tango-no-Sekku or Children’s Day in Japan. It is a national holiday on which parents hope their children – especially boys – stay safe and healthy. Families with boys display a samurai helmet replica or samurai doll inside of their home and fly koinobori (carp streamers) outside their houses. The samurai helmets serve as guardian gods to keep bad luck away from boys. It also protects the inside of the house.
On the other hand, koinobori is for outside the house. It is similar to a series of flags shaped like carp. Carp have been regarded as a lucky and strong fish since ancient times, so they are symbols of success in life in Japan. Parents fly koinobori in the sky with hopes of their children’s success.
On Children’s Day, people eat chimaki, which is a kind of Japanese rice cake, and kashiwamochi, a Japanese sweet, in hopes of their children growing up strong and healthy. Kashiwamochi is generally eaten in the Kanto area of Japan, which on the east side of the main island, Honshu. On the other hand, chimaki is generally eaten in the Kansai area, which on the western side of Honshu.
Chimaki is famous for not only being eaten on Children’s Day, but also in the famous and traditional Gion Festival of Kyoto. In this way, chimaki is connected with Kyoto culture.
More About Chimaki
On May 5th of each year, people in Kyoto usually eat chimaki, which is made from Japanese arrowroot rice cakes (kuzdumochi), sweetened and jellied bean paste (yokan), dango (balls of powdered grain, boiled and put in bean paste), and corn wrapped with a bamboo leaf and steamed.
Chimaki was introduced from China to Japan in the Nara Period (710~794) or Heian Period (794~1185). In those days, people made it as a preserved food, which was made from glutinous rice, wrapped in Japanese pampas grass, and simmered.
In addition, some people think that chimaki was named after wrapped food (maku) with Japanese pampas grass (chigaya). But today it is wrapped with a bamboo leaf, not chigaya. This new way was invented by Kawabata Doki, a master of rice cake stores in those days. The Emperor asked him to make something with kudzu from Yoshino which was one of the gifts dedicated to the Emperor by his citizens. Kudzu is very soft, so it cannot be wrapped with a fine leaf like chigaya, so he used a leaf of bamboo for yokan chimaki, and gave it as a present to the Emperor. This is the origin of doki chimaki. In this way, chimaki has become a Japanese confection, especially in Kyoto.
Over 500 years ago, Susumu Watanabe founded a rice cake store called, Watanabe Yashichiro. Doki was the name of his son-in-law, who helped him run the store. In those days, the Muromachi shogunate was getting weak and the finance of the Imperial Court was poor and they were short of food. Therefore, Susumu and Doki considered the situation and they presented a meal for the Emperor every day. Soon it became a custom to present rice cakes wrapped with salted bean paste called oasamono every morning and it continued until the Meiji Emperor had moved to Tokyo. That’s why chimaki of Kawabata Doki is one of the cakes most representative of Kyoto.
Now Kawabata Doki sells two kinds of doki chimaki: suisen chimaki and yokan chimaki. The former is cake made with kudzu from the Yoshino area of Nara Prefecture, while the latter is made with sweet bean jelly mixed with the kudzu from Yoshino. The refined sweetness, softness and scent of bamboo leaves are characteristic of these chimaki.
Kashiwamochi, or ‘Oak Leaf Rice Cake’, is another kind of Japanese cake eaten on Children’s Day in Japan. It is made by steaming rice powder, making it round and flat, and wrapping it with a piece of oak leaf. It also contains sweet bean paste, or an.
People in Kyoto prefer to make Kashiwamochi with misoan, made from shiromiso (sweeter than normal miso), rather than with koshian or tsubuan, which are normal bean pastes. The difference in bean pastes used is indicated by the right side and the wrong side of the oak leaf. In case of misoan, the mochi is wrapped with the oak leaf right side out. Koshi-an, however, is wrapped with the oak wrong side out.
People have eaten Kashiwamochi on Children’s Day since the Edo period. Originally, oak leaves were respected as a religious plate on which to put food for the gods. Also, oak leaves typically fall after budding in spring, when the new shoots pop up out of the ground. Therefore oak was regarded as a good luck tree to bring families prosperity of their descendants. It also became a celebratory leaf in samurai society. In this way, today Kashiwamochi has become another popular food associated with Children’s Day.
Where to Buy Chimaki and Kashiwamochi
You can buy chimaki and kashiwamochi at most of the Japanese cake stores from the middle of April to May 5th or even until the end of May. In addition, some supermarkets sell kashiwamochi around the Children’s day.
On-Chimaki-shi Kawabata Doki (御ちまき司 川端道喜)
Address: Minami Nonogami-cho 2-12, Shimogamo, Sakyo-ku, Kyoto
Hours: 9:30am to 5:30pm
Closed: Wednesday, August, from January to around February 3rd (for public people)
Access: Subway Karasuma Line Kitayama Station Exit1. 5minutes walk
Note: You can buy Chimaki at Kawabata Doki any time of the year except in January and August. However, advanced orders are required, especially in the weeks leading up to Children’s Day.