Another Side of Japan: Snacks and Sweets
the Culture of Giving
Weddings, funerals, and festive occasions are all times for gift giving. In Japan there are other times too, such as events marking the season, souvenirs to bring back after a trip, and presents to express gratitude, convey an apology or a greeting, ask a favor, or even thank someone for their gift by giving one in return. Sweet food has long been regarded as a fine gift to express appreciation on the special occasions in life.
It all goes back to sharing mochi rice cakes
A look back in time to the origin of the custom of giving sweet food leads us to mochi rice cakes. Made by pounding steamed sticky rice, mochi were an essential part of festivals celebrating a good harvest, and were common offerings at funerals and services commemorating one's ancestors. Once the formalities were over, the mochi would be passed around for everyone in attendance to eat together. This played an important role in cementing the relationships of all present.
Mochi coated with a sweet bean paste (called bota-mochi or o-hagi) are still eaten during Buddhist higan festivities around the time of the spring and fall equinoxes, when people visit family graves and offer food to the spirits of their ancestors. This custom, too, evolved into another occasion to eat mochi together. Especially in farming villages, people would take the time and effort needed to painstakingly make plenty of bota-mochi by hand, then present them to relatives, neighbors and others they had some form of ties with. This custom is rarely observed today, although just 20 or 30 years ago it was common enough to be reflected in the saying of the time, "Higan no bota-mochi—ittari kitari" ("Bota-mochi come and go during the higan festivities").
Sweetness, the very best gift of all
Sweet food would hardly be sweet without sugar. When sugar first came to Japan from China in the early part of the 8th century, people thought it had medical properties too, making it a valuable commodity. The upper classes often sent sugar itself as a gift. In the early modern period fairly large quantities were imported through trade with Holland, although not enough to make it a common kitchen item. For many years, sugar remained something that most Japanese could only dream about.
Sugar production began in Japan in the 17th century, around the beginning of the Edo period (1603-1867), a time of peace and greater prosperity. That was also a time when drinking tea became more common, and with tea came mochi snacks and baked sweet foods, appearing one after the other. Many survive to this day as traditional sweets.
The feudal daimyo lords of those days would come to the political capital of Edo and gather in a large reception hall at Edo Castle to participate in the kajo ceremony, when the Shogun himself would pass out large quantities of sweets. The ceremony's origins go back to a time when the Imperial Court and people in the lower classes would present sweet food to the gods on June 16 in the hope of warding off bad luck. Under the Shogunate, however, the custom changed into an event where attractions in the form of sweet food were used when the daimyo lords swore their allegiance to the Shogun.
Before long, the daimyo too were holding ceremonies and outdoing one another with gifts of greeting, and confectionaries became a gift as acceptable as saké or silken fabrics. Giving something to a superior would promptly result in receiving a gift in return. This created a cycle of giving practically without end, which created a niche business—trade in gifts the daimyo had no use for.
Sharing travel memories
Among the common folk of those days there developed the custom of making pilgrimages, most notably to Ise and Konpira shrines. They would come back with souvenirs, the best being hi-gashi (a dry confectionery hardened with sugar), and shoga-to (ginger juice simmered in a syrup until hard), since fancy confectionaries made with sugar were still usually beyond their financial reach. Before long, manju (rice flour cakes with sweet bean paste inside) with decorative writing or an illustration branded into the top began selling well. Manju, with their hemispherical shape and a symbol branded into the shiny surface, created a medium so unique it has been passed down to the present day, for a message you can use to invoke a special memory or advertise something. Perhaps no other country has such a wide selection of snacks and desserts decorated with illustrations and writing.
Wrapping to express the emotion behind the gift
When sending confectionary as a formal gift, etiquette calls for a wrapping that signals the reason for giving, whether celebration or commiseration. This is expressed in the choice of protective wrapping paper, with a noshi decoration to add flair and a mizuhiki string to fasten the wrapping. Noshi originated with the custom of giving a strip of dried abalone during a religious event, while mizuhiki are thin cords made from colored Japanese paper.
And so, formal wrapping for a gift of sweet food is more than just a protective cover—it also expresses the emotions of the giver. The art of giving that has evolved in Japan includes a subtle sensitivity that can be seen as characteristic of the culture.