[From the archives: Today (September 23rd) is the first day of the fall o-higan (お彼岸), when ohagi or botamochi are offered to ones ancestors, as well as oneself! My mother and my grandmother always made these at home around this time of year - I love their not-too-sweet stickiness. O-higan ends on the 26th, so if you like wagashi, why not give these a try? Originally published March 2007.]
The seven days centered around the bi-annual days of the vernal equinox is a Buddhist festival period known as higan (or o-higan for the honorific term) in Japan. The fall (autumn) higan is aki no higan, and the spring higan is haru no higan. Since the day of the spring equinox is March 21, we're about to enter the haru no ohigan period.
During haru no higan, a sweet confection called botamochi is eaten. The mochi part means sticky, pounded rice, and the bota part comes from botan, or the tree peony. Botamochi is supposed to ressemble a tree peony flower.
During the autumn equinox (aki no higan or simply (o)higan)) period, a very similar confection called ohagi is eaten. This is supposed to look like a hagi or bush clover flower (Latin: Lespedeza thunbergii). Botamochi and o-hagi look the same to me, even though a hagi flower looks nothing like a tree peony flower, but the good old ancestors were probably a lot more imaginative than I am.
Botamochi and o-hagi are made of sticky rice and sweet tsubuan, 'chunky-style' sweet azuki bean paste. They are a bit fiddly to make but not difficult, especially if you use one of my favorite cooking helpers, plastic cling film. Since these are best eaten freshly made, it's well worth the effort to make them at home if you like bean-based Japanese sweets. You can adjust the amount of sugar in the tsubuan to your taste. Here I have made three variations: coated with black sesame seeds; coated with kinako (toasted soy bean powder); and the most traditional form with the rice cake wrapped in a layer of the tsubuan.