Mochi refers to a wide range of rice cakes prepared from pounded glutinous rice, often sweetened, decorated with patterns or formed into various shapes, and made in an assortment of colors. While eaten throughout the year, mochi is associated in particular with celebrations of the New Year. Hanamochi, or “flower mochi,” is made by sticking small balls of pink and white mochi to the slender branches of trees such as willow, to give the impression of a bouquet of flowers or a tree in bloom. In some places, hanamochi is known as mayudama, or “cocoon balls,” and is used to bring good luck for the harvest and strong growth to silkworms.
Hanamochi is typical of Hida, the mountainous northern part of Gifu Prefecture, where harsh winters mean that flowers were traditionally not available for New Year’s celebrations; the custom of preparing it for the winter festivities has been practiced here for at least four centuries. The mochi is made with a native rice variety Takayama Mochi. In addition to preparing it as an auspicious symbol for the harvest and the New Year, farmers use hanamochi to show off their good fortune, with the most successful families having the best decorations.
Hanamochi is then removed from the branches and roasted or deep fried and eaten as hina arare.
Today, there is one small association in Takayama city that makes hanamochi; some families continue to make it at home and there are individuals who produce it for sale, but the tradition is declining, in large part due to the depopulation of the rural landscape and the general erosion of customs and practices linked to agricultural life.