The story goes that my maternal grandmother’s family, the Yasukochi family from North County San Diego, has been holding a mochitsuki since they first immigrated to the US from Japan. At age 30, my part in this family history is but a fraction of the whole story; there is so much institutional knowledge and skills that I have yet to learn but with each year that passes I see the path more clearly.
I think at first glance, the “traditional” way of making mochi can be seen as exhausting and takes too much time and effort. While I agree with that sentiment, to me, mochitsuki goes beyond the physical and technical aspects. It’s about family and, in some ways, activism. If you’ve seen or read past content I have been a part of that describes mochitsuki, you’ll undoubtedly be reminded of the comparison of separated rice grains coming together to form one unit, similar to families on this special occasion. What I mean by activism is this; when I think about the psychological repercussions of Japanese Americans incarcerated during WWII, my mind considers what it took for so many J/JA folk to return home and start anew. The common practice was, for survival, to repress cultural traditions, language, and even rebrand i.e. “temple” to “church.” And while my family did much of this, for some reason they felt no need to drop this cultural practice and, in many ways, fight against the notion of acculturating and assimilating. To me, this practice is about preserving a legacy that is embedded in a cultural tradition but also stands as a beacon to those who want to learn and/or reclaim a practice that has been buried for survival’s sake.
During a typical year, the day starts the afternoon before as the mochigome rice is soaked overnight. Around 6:00 a.m. the next morning, the usu is setup with hot water poured in and covered with a wooden lid. The kine are also soaked in hot water and the rice is steamed in a modified traditional wooden steamer. All of the equipment is cared for by my relatives from West LA and the annual event is held at my great uncle or aunt’s home, without them, this tradition would not be possible.
Mochitsuki goes beyond the physical and technical aspects. It’s about family and, in some ways, activism.
The majority of my relatives start showing up at 7:00 a.m. and the first mochi is usually started at that time. I can’t say for certain how many pounds of mochigome rice we make each year but I hear it’s typically between 80 – 100 lbs.
Throughout the morning we’ll rotate through pounders and turners – at this point, there are only a few turners: my uncle, myself, and my (first) cousin. They say the “Nagatas have heat resistant hands” but I personal think it stems from a theme of legacy as my grandpa’s role (Nagata, not Yasukochi) was to turn the mochi. I personally like to switch back and forth between turning and pounding as I enjoy being part of every batch we make.
My interest and commitment to the practice comes from watching my relatives, year after year, carry-out their roles so well and with humble precision.
After each batch is produced, the mochi goes to the molding table where the matriarchs of the family divvy up the mochi and “throw” them across the table to be molded by relatives. In my 30 years of participating, I have observed the “changing of the guard” as my uncle has taken on the primary turning duties and my mom is now the primary person to cut and divvy up the hot mochi.
Once the mochi-making has completed, we cleanup the equipment, pack away the mochi and arguably the best part of the day begins, the potluck lunch. The spread is typical of JA families with an assortment of food ranging from hotdogs and chili rice to tamales and even that “7 Layer Wonder” Jell-O makes an occasional appearance. During lunch, each table is filled with conversations on school, work, stocks, etc. The topics are ever-changing and always interesting to listen in on. After lunch has concluded everyone grabs a bag of mochi and we leave thereafter.
Many people see me as the “Mochi Master” or “Guru” and while it’s all very flattering, I can’t take all credit. My interest and commitment to the practice comes from watching my relatives, year after year, carry-out their roles so well and with humble precision. My uncle can turn a blistering hot mochi like its nothing and my mom can also divvy up a blistering hot mochi into precise segments. I only hope to be as good as they are when my time comes to take on a primary role. And in the meantime, while I don’t own any mochitsuki equipment (beyond my designated coconut brush scrubber for usu scrubbing), it’s my dream to one day own a stone usu, kine, and steamers so that I can continue to share this practice with others beyond the one weekend a year that my family hosts.
The pandemic did put a halt to our family’s mochi operation last year but so long as the stars align, we’ll hopefully be pounding mochi this year. While the event and day is short in nature (maybe 6-8 hours), it’s by far my favorite day of the year and I hope to one day share this family tradition with my own family and teach them the ways as I learned.