Botamochi is a Japanese traditional sweet and generally refers to a small mochi shaped like a stick ('mochi' is a rice cake; in this case, it is made from steamed rice and steamed glutinous rice, and the both are not completely pounded nor baked) with an (a sweet red paste made from red azuki beans). In the past, when there were not much sweets, botamochi was an expensive sweet which was served to guests at home, to workers in parties after rice plantings, to children as a snack, to gathered people in Buddhist services and so on. As a substitute for azuki-an, other 'an' such as kinako (sweet soybean flour), ao-nori (laver), goma (ground sesame), zunda (sweet green paste made from young soybeans in the pod) are used. An is used for coating mochi or being stuffed in mochi like rice balls.
Botamochi and Ohagi
Botamochi is sometimes called 'hagi no mochi' or 'ohagi'. The origins of the names are different from each other as described below, but at present, most people often confuse them, as some shops sell it labeling 'ohagi' in spring or labeling 'botamochi' in fall, although in spring it should be called 'botamochi' and in fall it should be called 'ohagi'.
The names also vary with locality; in some regions, the rice cake coated with azuki-an is called botamochi and the rice cake coated with kinako-an is called ohagi; in some regions, the rice cake coated with koshi-an (completely ground an) is botamochi, the rice cake coated with tsubu-an (not completely ground an) or with azuki (non-ground red azuki beans) is ohagi; in other regions, the rice cake coated with koshi-an is ohagi and the rice cake coated with tsubu-an or with azuki is botamochi; in some regions, mochi of mina-goroshi (literally, 'killing all', completely pounded mochi) is botamochi and mochi of han-goroshi (literally, 'killing a half', not completely pounded mochi) is ohagi; in some regions, in spring and summer it is called botamochi, and in fall and winter it is called ohagi.
Some people consider that ohagi (or 'obetabeta') is a nyobo-kotoba (term used by maids of the court and developed since the Muromachi period) for botamochi.
Seasonal names of botamochi and the origins
Usually botamochi is called 'botamochi' in spring and called 'ohagi' in fall. There are other formal names for use in summer and winter, although they are rarely used today. The followings are the seasonal names of botamochi and their origins.
Spring: Botamochi牡丹餅 (literally, 'peony mochi')
In the higan (the equinoctial week) of spring when red and pink flowers of peony bloomed, people put red azuki-an for gods or Buddha or ancestors; the color and the shape of those azuki-an reminded people of the peony flowers, therefore, the mochi with azuki-an made in spring began being called botamochi. "Wakan Sansai Zue" (Japanese and Chinese All Things Encyclopedia) compiled in the Edo period says "the names of botamochi and ogi no hana originated from their shapes and colors."
Summer: Yobune夜船 (literally, 'night ship')
Unlike normal mochi, when botamochi was being pounded, particular noise was not made (the Japanese express the noise of pounding normal mochi as 'pettan, pettan'). The neighbors do not notice it. So people called it 'tsuki-shirazu搗き知らず' (unnoticed pounding); the pronunciation of 'tsuki-shirazu' was the same as 'tsuki-shirazu着き知らず' (unnoticed arriving); people had been calling night ships 'tsuki-shirazu' because night ships often arrived at the destination while the passengers did not notice; the word 'tsuki-shirazu' reminded people of the night ships in summer, therefore, the mochi pounded unnoticed in summer began being called 'yobune' (night ship).
Like the origin of botamochi, red azuki-an reminded people of hagi flower which had red-purple blossoms in the higan of fall, therefore, mochi with azuki-an made in fall began being called ohagi ('o' is a prefix).
Winter: Kitamado (literally, 'the north window')
The pronunciation of 'tsuki-shirazu搗き知らず' (unnoticed pounding) was also the same as 'tsuki-shirazu月知らず' (unnoticed moon); from the north window, the moon was not seen particularly in winter; therefore, mochi pounded unnoticed in winter began being called 'kitamado' (the north window).
There remain many proverbs related to botamochi, so botamochi is considered to have been a very familiar sweet for the Japanese.
Tana kara Botamochi (a botamochi falls down from a shelf)
It means that unexpected luck is brought without making any effort (it is often translated as 'pennies from heaven'). People often omit it and say 'Tana-Bota'. Sometimes it is arranged to 'Aita Kuchi ni Botamochi' (a botamochi falls into an opened mouth).
Botamochi de Koshi Utsu
Its meaning is the same as 'Tana kara Botamochi' (sometimes it is translated as 'his bread is buttered on both sides').
Botamochi no Shio no Sugita-no to Onna no Kuchi no Sugita-no wa Torikaeshi ga Tsukanai (botamochi salted too much and women saying too much cannot be undone)
Botamochi wa Kome, Shinbo wa Kane (botamochi is made from rice, patience makes money)
The size of a botamochi is usually the same as an egg or a little larger than it, but, sometimes smaller botamochi are found.
Like other Japanese traditional sweets, an is seasoned with a very small amount of salt or mochi is shaped with a little salt water, since the salt is very effective in increasing the sweetness.
In English, sometimes it is called 'botamochi' as well.
In the old days, botamochi had been called 'kaimochii' or 'kaimochi' (written as 'kahimochihi', 'kahimochi'). Some scholars say 'kahimochihi' referred to soba-gaki (a warm dish made with a paste of buckwheat flour).
Kahimochihi is found in "Uji Shui Monogatari" (Uji Tales Collection) compiled in the Kamakura period as "Let's eat kahimochihi." The botamochi made in doyo-no-iri (the beginning of the dog days) is called 'doyo mochi'.
In some regions is found a folkway that making babies step on large botamochi to hope the babies thrive.
The wife of Muneshige TACHIBANA (a swordsman), Ginchiyo TACHIBANA is called 'Botamochi-sama' (Mrs. Botamochi) since the shape of her gravestone is like a large botamochi.