Greetings Sake Lovers, welcome to another KURAND Magazine article that introduces you to the world of sake.
Kagamibiraki is an exciting ritual often used to open celebrations and important events in which a sake barrel lid is broken open with a mallet. It’s a staple bit of fun around this time of year in sake themed end of year parties.
What is the Meaning of Kagamibiraki?
One surprising fact is that the literal translation for kagamibiraki is not barrel breaking, but mirror breaking. Although there are numerous theories about the meaning and origin of this name, it is also the name of a ceremony used at new year which involves breaking open a special type of mochi cake called kagamimochi.
The sake industry basically has its own version of this ceremony. It goes by the same name but replaces the rice cake with a sake barrel. Sake shops refer to the lid of the barrel using the Japanese word for mirror, kagami, most probably because the lid bears an uncanny resemblance to the sort of flat round mirror that can be found in households all over Japan. The ritual has a strong religious connotation and sometimes the barrels contain a special sacred sake intended to be presented as an offering to the gods. As it would not be fair for the gods to have all the fun, the sake is normally passed around for everyone partaking in the ritual to enjoy.
The origins of this ritual can be traced all the way back, as far back as 300 years, to the Shogun (warring) Era of Japan (1603-1868). It is believed that the 4th Tokugawa general was the first to perform the ritual to rally his troops before battle. A string of successes soon lead to its widespread use by generals and military commanders all over the country. Some generals even had sake casks made especially for the purpose, engraved with their own unique insignia.
Given the close link between shinto and sake, it is more likely that the name was adopted from the new year’s mochi breaking ceremony of the same name.
Nowadays, the ritual serves all kinds of purposes: the starting gun for a new departure or race, as a prayer for success and celebration upon achieving it, for prosperity and good health. It is even becoming popular at weddings. So much so that it is now possible to rent out barrels with specially cut out lids that can be pieced back together so that the ritual can be performed multiple times.
Whatever its purpose, the ritual is believed to bring good luck and good tidings and gets parties off to the right start.
So what, besides a barrel, do you need to perform the ceremony?
Sake barrels are used for kagamibiraki. A barrel that fits itto (18 liters) is generally used. The aroma of cedar blends with the sake to create a unique woody flavor.
Used to cut the ropes that bind the barrel.
Mallet / Hammer
Used to take off the tags (bamboo) that is on the top part of the barrel.
Crowbar or Spanner
Used to open up the lid.
Tips for Performing a Successful Kagamibiraki Ceremony
Two Patterns of Kagamibiraki
There are two slightly different versions of the way the ceremony is performed. In the first version, the lid is split by hitting it with a mallet or using a spanner to slowly prize it away from the barrel. However this version lacks a bit of thrill. At celebratory events it is more exciting to split it open using a mallet. Take care not to soak people in the front row of your audience because the sake usually sloshes out on impact.
Kagamibiraki, not kagamiwari
Kagamibiraki often goes by another name, kagamiwari (mirror splitting) because lid is being split not opened. However, the word for split, wari is also associated with bad luck so kagamibiraki is the more desired term.
Best Consumed Soon After Opening
Sake barrels generally contain namazake (see this article) which is unpasteurized sake that has a short shelf life and needs to be consumed soon after opening. Any sake leftover at the end of the party can be drained off and bottled by attaching a nomiguchi (tap) to the lower part of the barrel.
If you happen to be in Tokyo this New Year, you may be able to witness this spectacle first hand because KURAND often performs a mini version of the ritual at its branches as part its annual New Year’s Eve party. And after enjoying getting wet you can taste your way through 100 different types of sake from boutique breweries across Japan.