MURAYAMA, YAMAGATA PREF. – “Try our mochi,” calls out Nao Sakai at a Tokyo market as she sells rice and rice cakes made at her family’s shop in Yamagata Prefecture.
Mochi, or glutinous rice cake, is a popular treat eaten especially during the New Year’s holidays and holds a special place in Japanese hearts.
The cakes can be eaten in myriad ways but are traditionally eaten as ozoni (a soup with mochi and vegetables), and is considered the most auspicious dish to eat on New Year’s Day.
November and December are the peak season for selling it, says Sakai. She offers two types: the round onna mochi and the square otoko mochi — using the Japanese words for woman and man, respectively.
Sakai, 41, travels around a large part of the country, from Tokyo to Osaka, selling mochi at events, farmers’ markets, department stores and guesthouses.
Each November, her family’s rice shop uses the traditional mochitsuki method, pounding steamed rice in a wooden mortar with a large, heavy wooden mallet at a small factory in Murayama. The Komeyakata rice shop doubles as a guesthouse.
While she is busy with customers, her family and Komeyakata’s staff count out loud the number of times they hit the mochi, as they flip corresponding number cards.
Each batch placed in the mortar weighs 5 kg and is beaten 200 times. A man rears back and pounds it as hard as he can with the kine (mallet), before a woman quickly flips it over. The man is replaced by another man after 20 repetitions.
The women switch when they get tired. This is done at least 16 times, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., to make 200 packs of mochi daily, split evenly between the onna and otoko versions, explains Yoichiro Sakai, 42, Nao’s eldest brother and “boss.”
The mochi is then molded into shapes, carefully inspected, kept in storage and packed by a dozen or so staff in the factory.
“Mochi starts getting smooth, shiny and whiter by the time it’s beaten 150 times,” Nao explains. “But to be certain that it’s delicious, we have to pound it 200 times.”
“The taste is really different” from the machine-beaten ones, says Nao’s husband Sam Wilson, 36, originally from Britain, who has been doing mochitsuki daily. “It is a lot smoother.”
Mochi tastes better when made with mochi rice, rather than rice powder as is usually the case with industrially produced mochi, Wilson says as he drives to a tract of land where they harvest their special rice in late September and early October with staff and volunteers.
Over the rice shop’s 130-year history, the Sakai family has kept expanding the business, moving on from being sellers and cultivators to mochi producers. But making rice cakes was a family tradition before it became a business about six or seven years ago.
For around 20 or 30 years — none of the younger Sakais know when exactly — the family has been inviting neighbors and friends over to share homemade mochi every November.
Their grandmother used a machine then and at times sold some mochi casually to friends in Tokyo. But when the fifth generation decided to take it over from her, “We decided, well, if we’re going to do it, let’s do it properly. Let’s do it by hand,” Wilson says, recalling the family’s decision to use the traditional mochitsuki method.
They also started making it by mochitsuki “because it’s really fun,” Yoichiro says.
“We named the business Komeyakata, which literally translates into ‘rice’ and the old word for ‘family.'” Making mochi is hard and cannot be made alone, he says. In the old days, mochitsuki was done “everywhere” by families.
Hitomi Abiko, a vegetable farmer, came by the factory one snowy day to buy fresh mochi with her Tupperware already filled with salty fermented natto (soybeans) — a common way to eat mochi in the region — for her elderly father. Mochitsuki is “very rare” and Komeyakata’s mochi is filled with “the men’s strength,” she claims.
An American university professor staying at Komeyakata’s guesthouse also enjoyed watching the ritual.
“I’ve seen a couple of times demonstrations like this in Nara but this definitely feels authentic,” said Heather Yoder, 31. “I’ve never had such good, fresh mochi before,” she said as she ate her chocolate-covered treat.
“When we do it, everyone from the neighborhood comes, and it’s noisy and fun,” Nao says. “I like to think that joy is transferred into our mochi so that people who eat it become extremely happy.”
Komeyakata ships out all of its mochi by Dec. 20, but Nao likes to travel to sell it directly to customers because “it’s so enjoyable, and I think our customers feel confident when they meet their producers.
“I come to sell mochi in Tokyo, because I believe it leads to customers becoming even happier about seeing us and eating our mochi that is imbued with our joy,” she says.
That joy was spread as she sold her products at Aoyama Food Market in central Tokyo, when Chinese student Hu Xuebin, 20, tasted some that her stall was offering to passers-by. It was her first time tasting Japanese mochi, which she described as being different from the rice cakes back home but still good.
“So mochi is considered delicious everywhere in the world!” Nao said.
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