Now that the World Cup is nearly over, those of us in Japan turn our attention to other matters, such as food fights. Japan must be the only country where throwing food is not only acceptable but encouraged. Whole neighborhoods gather to throw food at each other in a tradition called “mochi nage,” or throwing rice cakes. No ceremony in Japan is complete without mochi, a symbol of happiness. In the old days, they probably threw only rice cakes, but these days they throw anything from packaged bread to bags of potato chips and instant ramen — modern symbols of happiness.
The other day, neighbors on my island held a mochi nage ceremony for their new house. The house was half-finished — no walls yet — but when I arrived, the builder was just tacking on the roof. Other people were milling around carrying plastic bags, waiting for the action to begin. To the side of the house were rows of sake bottles, fruit baskets and enormous “bento” tied up in pink cloth that would be distributed to family members afterward.
First, the builder and some other men carried a Shinto ornament to the top of the roof. The ornament was on a platform that they balanced on the peak of the roof. Offerings of sake and “kagami mochi” (large rice cakes the size of round mirrors) and a giant radish were set on the platform. The men, in their special roof shoes with a notch for the big toe, like Dr. Dentons for carpenters, knelt down on the roof and prayed to the gods. They poured sake and drank it right there on top of the roof! Another man poured a bottle of purifying sake around the foundation of the house .
Then the family members climbed a ladder up to the second floor, a very strategic place to throw mochi from, due to the position above the crowd and lots of room for arm-swinging. Here they piled the mochi and the other symbols of happiness as if they were ammunition. More and more bags of happiness were handed up via the ladder to the second floor and the roof. Then everyone took their stance.
Someone yelled something, perhaps “Food fight!” and suddenly I was caught in a melee of flying food. First, the mirror mochi made its debut from the roof, landing with a thud on the ground. I hope it didn’t break, bringing us seven years of bad luck. After this, it was like 60 seconds of Halloween as people stuffed their plastic bags with food. They rushed around, jumping and grabbing at food as it careened through the air, giving new meaning to the words “fast food.” The old ladies used an underhand pitch, while the younger males pelted their friends with curve balls. Other mochi spun out of control, becoming mochi ground balls. Everyone, even the gray-haired ponytail man, scrambled and grabbed and stuffed their bags full of happiness. Immediately following this Halloween minute, everyone disappeared home, to inspect and eat their booty.
This 60-second Halloween is much better than the American style. First of all, we’re already in our costumes: The carpenter can go as the carpenter with his Dr. Denton shoes, the gray-haired ponytail man can go as the gray-haired ponytail man, and I can go as the “gaijin.” Second, it’s nice that we only have to go to one house to receive all the treats. Lastly, the 60-second Halloween is not limited to children.
But watching my fellow islanders react with such zeal made me wonder what it is exactly that makes this event so exciting. Is it that we are able to catch food even without a fishing rod? Is it the grasping of food we traditionally had to make ourselves to get? No, I think the excitement comes in the simple pleasure found in the aerodynamics of food. Food fights are probably a basic instinct. Now If I could just get my neighbors to throw meals for these occasions, I wouldn’t have to cook.
With all the modern symbols of happiness, including hamburgers and fries, perhaps the next type of fast food restaurant will be one where they throw your food at you.