by Hiroshi Eto, For the North American Post
Modernization has seen Japanese families leave rural farming areas and flock to big cities for education and jobs. Families of eight children, like my mother’s, going home for the holidays to steam sweet rice (mochigome) and then pound it with wooden mallets in a large stone or wood mortar to create rice cakes (mochi) for New Year’s Day meals is not as common today in Japan. There is also the matter of moving a 200-pound mortar out of storage, compared to grabbing an electric countertop mochi-maker no bigger than a rice cooker to automatically shake it out in about 30 minutes.
Between the Buddhist Church, Nisei Veterans Hall and the Japanese Cultural & Community Center of Washington (JCCCW), the tradition of mochitsuki has been kept alive by Japanese Americans so that the local community can ‘come home’ as an ever-expanding family encompassing every demographic. You might be greeted with the smell of grated daikon radish. It might remind you of something completely unappetizing, but mixed with soy sauce and placed on some fresh mochi, it blends. Fermented soy bean natto also has an aroma and spider web-like slime forcing diners to swirl their chopsticks in the air to break them off, but placed on some fresh mochi … perhaps it can be an acquired taste. There is always the steady standby of soy sauce with sugar to dip pieces of mochi in for the ultimate comfort food. Soy beans crushed into a powder (kinako) and mixed with sugar may be worse than glitter in how it gets everywhere, but it makes a tasty dusting for the mochi.
Typically, mochitsuki is done before the New Year to have a soup with mochi cakes (Ozoni). Thanks to Christmas being so close and Dick Clark making New Year’s Eve a big event, the idea of Japanese-Americans gathering for a traditional New Year’s meal of ozoni is getting rare; not to mention year-ending (Toshi Koshi) Soba on New Year’s Eve. This excuses the event date being pushed after the New Year, after the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend, but before the NFL crowns a champ.
The JCCCW has been a gracious host for the Fukuoka Kenjinkai to organize the event with the help of a large cadre of community volunteers. Many local community members have never participated in a mochitsuki, but we also find many visitors from Japan who have never participated in one either. The JCCCW is like a time machine offering community members a chance to time slip back and be like a big family flocking home to pound out mochi for the New Year. It makes for good times and smiling faces that keep many a volunteer energized to keep the tradition alive. We hope it continues for many years to come.