To Eat the Leaf or Not to Eat the Leaf ?- That is the Question (when eating traditional Japanese sweets)
By Avi Landau
(Because of last month`s earthquake and subsequent tsunami, there are many here in Tsukuba, including myself, who are still not in mood for partying, and I hesitate to write about HANAMI, cherry blossom viewing, which has traditionally been one of the most festive of activities in the Japanese year. On the other hand, the spring flowers, as symbols of rejuvination and STARTING OVER, are probably the best thing for us right now, and a toned down picnic under the cherries in full bloom might just be the right medicine. With that in mind, I have decided to repost some of my old Tsukublog articles on cherry blossom viewing customs.)
Eating sweets sounds like a simple pleasure. And though partaking of wagashi (和菓子), or traditional Japanese snacks, is certainly enjoyable, it is a far from simple field.
As it is now the cherry blossom viewing season, I stopped by one of the wagashi counters at Seibu and asked for some sakura-mochi (桜餅), cherry rice cakes, which I had thought would be the appropriate sweet for slowly noshing on under the full-blooming trees. I was surprised however, when the woman behind the counter told me that the season for sakura-mochi had already passed with the month of March. She explained that the wagashi called sakura-mochi was eaten from the Doll Festival on March 3rd (because of its being a pretty pink), up until the end of the month. I confirmed this later by going to all the wagashi shops I knew of in Tsukuba and was told the same story. Sorry,no sakura-mochi.
Sakura-mochi is a flattened piece of pounded rice, dyed pink, which is filled with sweet bean paste, rolled into a crepe, and then partially wrapped with a salted cherry leaf. It was invented by a wagashi shop (Yamamoto-Ya), still located along the banks of the Sumida River, in the early 19th century. They became the craze of old Edo, then spread throughout the country and have become a standard part of spring in Japan.
In the Kansai region (Kyoto, Osaka…) however, confectioners had their own take on the idea and while still using the salted cherry leaf and sweet beat paste, they used a different type of dough (one in which the individual grains of rice remained recognizable) and gave the cakes a different shape, something very close to a ball. It was also given a different name: domyoji (道明寺).
It is domyoji, originally from Kansai, which have become the sweet to enjoy in April, especially during the cherry blossom season. And you might very well be served this tasty little morsel this month by Japanese friends or colleagues.
If you are fortunate enough for that to occur, the next, inevitable question arises. Do you eat the leaf or not? Well, the leaf is edible and in my opinion delicious. However, it’s a matter of personal taste. In this area most people eat the leaf, though it seems that in Kyoto many people just savor the leaf’s aroma.
One more point to remember. Do not confuse sakura-mochi or domyoji with May’s sweet kashiwa-mochi(柏餅). This is a similar sweet-bean filled rice cake wrapped with the leaf of a Japanese oak. It is associated with Childrens Day (May 5), because these leaves do not fall from the tree until the tree starts budding, which for the Japanese symbolizes a harmonious flow from one generation to the next.
When eating Kashiwa-mochi you should DEFINITELY NOT EAT THE LEAF, as it is not edible. There is a story I heard about the Showa Emperor upsetting his stomach by not following that rule (the Emperor apparently should not leave anything on his plate).
For more on traditional sweets for cherry blossom viewing see: