Our Lives | JAPAN LITE

A Japanese tradition to greet the new year

by Amy Chavez

Contributing Writer

“Let’s pass on the traditions to our children!” cheered the notice delivered to my doorstep. The black-and-white printed flyer informed the event details: “Mochi-making. Outside the Public Hall, Dec. 8, 8:30 a.m. to 12:00 p.m.”

When I arrive at 8:25 a.m. on Sunday morning, the rice is already percolating away, threads of steam escaping from the sides of flat wooden boxes stacked three high and positioned over a small cauldron of boiling water.

The three island children are present, two of them running amok while their limp-limbed baby sister hangs from her father’s child harness. Of the 20 or so bystanders, not all are islanders. Friends and family have come over to Shiraishi Island from the mainland to join in the festivities, including a few more children, which makes a total of six under the age of 12. An army of a dozen island wives outfitted in white aprons formed the “women’s club,” on hand to shape the mochi rice cakes.

While the women crowd around a long tabletop shrouded in a thin film of rice flour, men of all ages hover around the steaming rice box contraption. When cued, two men lift the square racks from the top of the stack while another guy pulls out the bottom shelf and carries it to the waiting stone mortar.

Think fast: The referee's hands fold a gooey lump of rice while it is hammered into a 'mochi' rice cake. He must work fast in order not to break the rhythm of the mallets. | AMY CHAVEZ
Think fast: The referee’s hands fold a gooey lump of rice while it is hammered into a ‘mochi’ rice cake. He must work fast in order not to break the rhythm of the mallets. | AMY CHAVEZ

These stone basins can be found outside of every house on our small island. With a long history of granite-mining here, our mortars are said to be of exceptional quality. So much so that brides would pack the family mortar, or usu, and take it with them when they married and left the island.

Now that the steaming cooked rice has been peeled from its mesh and transferred to the usu, four men stand poised with large wooden mallets to begin the mochi-tsuki (the pounding of rice to make rice cakes). With a grunt they start, each taking his turn to bring the hammer down to wallop the mass of rice in a sequence called yon-cho-gine (four mallets). The unbreaking rhythm of thuds was ensured by shouts of “yō, dokkoi!” Each wallop advances the glob to a stickier state while a referee on the side whisks water into the mix to prevent the mass from sticking to the wooden mallet heads.

“Do you pound mochi in your neighborhood on the mainland?” I ask some spectators. “Oh no,” one woman says. “We make it at home with a machine. It’s very convenient.”

I’ve never actually seen a mochi-making appliance but I imagine it is not quite the back-breaking proposition unfolding in front of us. After 15 minutes — and several changes of manpower to allow the mochi masons interim rests — the rice is gaining the consistency of mochi and, at this point, the referee sneaks his hands into the pure white mass to turn it over between the bone-crushing wallops.

When deemed ready, the weighty glutinous blob is carried by hand to the ladies around the table, who part it to form rice cakes so delicate they sit in the palm of your hand like a freshly laid goose egg. The mochi cakes are lined up in trays and some are sent to the public hall’s kitchen.

Another matron takes a tray to offer some of the globules to the spectators. Following close behind is another lady in a smock with a bottle of sake and communal cups for o-miki, a toast with the Shinto gods. After all, the process of making mochi is itself an offering to the gods.

Getting the kids involved

Meanwhile, the next pallet of steamed rice is taken from the bottom of the stack on the cauldron, separated from its mesh and dumped into the mortar. The hammers come down, but in time to a traditional mochi-pounding song that the participants struggle to remember. They laugh as they grapple with both strength and memory.

While the island only pounds mochi into cakes once for the new year holiday these days, in the past it was performed more frequently for all kinds of celebrations. People could be seen doing mochi-tsuki outside their houses before family celebrations such as when a child turned 1 year old and had to carry a large rice cake on their back — whether they could walk or not!

Passing down tradition: Tadashi Amano teaches his 7-year-old grandson, Minato, how to hold a mallet that is used to make rice cakes for the holidays. | AMY CHAVEZ
Passing down tradition: Tadashi Amano teaches his 7-year-old grandson, Minato, how to hold a mallet that is used to make rice cakes for the holidays. | AMY CHAVEZ

Another occasion to make the cakes is for mochi-nage, an inauguration rite when rice cakes are tossed from a new house into the crowd gathered in front of it, or from a new boat to those crowding the shore before the boat’s maiden voyage. I’m reminded of this as I stand talking to the local cargo ship captain as we reminisce about the mochi-nage ceremony for his own boat more than 20 years ago.

“It’s said that it’s good luck to have pregnant women attend the ceremony for a boat,” he tells me. It turns out that mochi is believed to help with milk production in lactating women and the cakes are also eaten by women after giving birth to help restore their health.

“Were there any pregnant women at your event?” I ask him.

“I don’t remember,” he replies with a loud and hearty laugh.

The junior high school kids are now attempting yon-cho-gine. Bereft of even the slightest refrain of a mochi song and too shy to grunt, theirs is a quiet affair as the mallet heads gently poof into the rice pillow. When the cake finally reaches its globby glutinous stage, an aproned woman appears from the kitchen carrying a basket of mugwort, known to be rich in calcium and iron, and tosses it into the mix. Gradually, the strands disappear into the glob, dying it a vivid green for o-mogi rice cakes.

With the transfer of the meanie greenie to the table, and the last pallet of hot steamed rice thrown into the usu, one of the elders, Tadashi Amano, takes the chance to teach his 7-year-old grandson, Minato, how to hold the mallet. As the child taps the rice with the head, the womens’ club distributes the special New Year’s holiday treat o-zōni: A hot vegetable broth with a rice cake submerged and semi-melted inside. O-zōni is a delectable, one-of-a-kind texture that can warm the heart on a cold winter’s day.

While nibbling away on a mochi rice cake, I can’t help but think this is a fitting way to welcome in 2020, the Year of the Rat.

Amy Chavez is the author of “Amy’s Guide to Best Behavior in Japan: Do it Right and Be Polite!” (Stone Bridge Press).

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