“Yoi-sho! Yoi-sho! Yoi-sho!” The call and response echoed around the countryside as my principal and I traded blows, our kine, large wooden mallets, thwacking heavily against the deep wooden mortar. The unfortunate (or fortunate depending on your perspective) recipient of our beating was a large mound of sticky, steaming, sweet mochi rice. No we weren’t just pummeling this rice for the sport of it, or for the unintentional stress relief, we were of course making mochi.
While many people in the States probably know mochi in its ice-cream form, there are countless other preparations one can find for the rice cakes in Japan. There’s daifuku mochi, mochi stuffed with anything from sweet red-bean paste to strawberries. There’s yomogi mochi, or mochimade using mugwort, which is probably the most well known mochi preparation due to the renowned speed of this shop in Nara. There is also sakura mochi, flavored with pickled cherry blossom leaves and colored a subtle shade of pink. Then there are dango, skewered balls of mochimade from mochiko, or glutinous rice flour rather than mochigome which is pounded out by hand. Dango are skewered three to a stick, toasted and topped with a variety of ingredients including shoyu syrup, black sesame, and anko(sweet red-bean paste).
Like many traditional dishes in Japan, the preparation and flavors of various mochidishes can reflect a specific occasion or season, like hanami dango, or ozoni, a soup traditionally eaten on New Years morning. In that way, something as simple as a rice cake can become something far more symbolic and significant in peoples’ lives than one might think.
The Japanese tradition of making mochi for New Years is followed in households throughout Japan as oshougatsuapproaches. Families and communities alike gather around large mortars and pummel freshly steamed mochigome, sweet glutinous rice, into smooth and shiny mounds. From there, pieces are portioned off and rolled into something resembling a bun or a dumpling. Some portions are simply cut from the large mound into rectangular shapes to be roasted over coals until brown and blistered. The whole process usually begins a day in advance, as the rice is soaked overnight and then steamed in batches the following day, making its way from the steamer to the usu,or mortar, to eventually become mochi through a tradition known as mochitsuki (餅つき).
During my time in Japan I was fortunate enough to take part in a traditional mochitsuki.
A few days before our winter recess, the principle of the middle school I taught at enthusiastically approached me. “Have you ever had mochi before?” he asked curiously in Japanese. To which I replied, of course I had, I loved mochi. I even went on to tell him of my troubles with steaming hot mochikomaking daifuku the year before. “No, no, I mean real mochi,” he responded, lifting his arms and bringing them down swiftly, as if swinging a pickaxe. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s fun. Plus, the mochi tastes better when you work for it.” Not that I needed any more coaxing, but he also quickly added, “And when we’re through we can make some okonomiyaki.”Of course to that invitation, I couldn’t say no.
So, a few days before New Years I found myself hiking through the mountains with my principal on a cold winter morning, walking his shiba inu and plucking ripe mikan(a tangerine-like citrus fruit) and kinkan(kumquats) from the bowed branches around us. As we hiked, he pointed out different trees and plants, speaking proudly of this little town he called home. We spoke of many things, my own New Years traditions, what my plans were for the new year, how I was getting along with my life in Japan. Then, as we rounded a bend, his home came into view down at the bottom of the hill. As we descended, he began running me through the process of mochitsuki and smiling with a certain look of anticipation as he made sure to emphasize several times the amount of strength it was going to take.
When we arrived, his mother and son were preparing the usu and kine, making sure they were clean and wet enough to begin the sticky business of pounding rice. With some time still left to go, his mother told us to head inside and take some tea and warm up while we waited for the rice to steam.
As I slipped off my shoes and bowed into the small tatami room adjoining the entranceway, the strong smell of the straw mats mixed with the aroma of green tea and steaming rice. Foreign as those scents might be to someone from Miami, for some reason, in that moment it smelled like home.
Shrugging out of our jackets, my principal and I shuffled inside, rubbing the cold from our hands. Inside, we found his daughter-in-law chatting with his father. They both sat beside the rice steamer, knees tucked under themselves seated in seiza. As we entered, his daughter-in-law reached for a kettle warming on a heater nearby and poured us each a cup of tea. We joined them near the steamer and with a quick “itadakimasu*,” began to sip our tea and join the conversation. Time seemed to slow down as we sat there watching the steam curl up towards the ceiling, waiting in patient anticipation.
It wasn’t long until by what I can only guess was experience and intuition, my principal’s father decided the rice was ready. Tossing some rice flour onto a long rectangular board, his daughter-in-law helped to transfer the rice out of the steamer and onto the tray. From there, my principal and I took the mass of rice outside, handing it over to his mother for inspection before placing it into the deep basin of the wooden mortar. “Are you ready?” she asked excitedly. “You’re up first.”
And so it was I found myself wondering if I had done something wrong. Did I say something out of place? Maybe my recent classes hadn’t been up to par. None of this was true of course, but as I stood there sweating, arms aching, it sure felt like it. That’s because the first part of mochitsuki involves kneading the verysticky rice into a more uniform structure, after which time it can begin to take its beating. Until then, one must use the large wooden mallet like a pestle, turning and pressing and kneading the rice in circles. All the while, the sticky mess fights back, clinging to the usuand pulling against the mallet as you fight it into submission. It was of course also at this time, that I noticed my principal and his son both had other preparations to attend to, though not without the occasional moment to sneak a grinning peak or pass by asking, “You doing alright?” or adding, “It’s quite a workout isn’t it?” To which I would reply with an enthusiastic nod, and keep at it. And the truth of it was I actually did enjoy it. Once the initial shock was over and my muscles got used to the fact that this really was physical work, it felt good in the way any exercise does, except at the end of this workout I knew I would have mochi and that made it all the more bearable.
What made it even more bearable, however, was the time spent with my principal and his family. As I kneaded away, his mother kept me company, occasionally stopping me to recenter the ball of rice, wipe off the end of the mallet, add some water, and all the while chatting and speaking to me as if I were her own grandchild. Then there were the moments spent trading swings with my principal or his son, getting into synch with one another’s motions, smiling and laughing in spite of the work. And then there were the best moments where we all sat around the mound of freshly pounded mochitogether, taking the pieces his mother tore from the mound and rolling them into balls, filling some with seaweed and some with anko, leaving others plain, toasting some over the heater and dipping them into soy sauce for a quick snack, giving us enough energy to get back to the mallet and mortar. It was that time spent joking and talking that made those moments some of my strongest and most cherished memories not only of my time in Japan but in my life, period.
My favorite moment of the day, however, might have come at about the third batch of mochi that morning. Having long discarded my dusty, rice flour speckled flannel shirt, I could feel the sweat on my back, my sweater clinging to me despite the cold, along with a nice ache in my shoulders.
“It’s quite a workout, isn’t it?” my principal asked yet again, casually leaning on his mallet as we paused for his mother to fold the pounded mound of rice into itself. We would repeat this process several times, glad each time for the brief respite as his mother repositioned the soon-to-be mochi. Then with a slap of water and one last fold, she would nod gleefully for us to start again. And so, lifting the hefty mallets, we would resume, first slowly as to re-synchronize our swings and then picking up a little speed.
Towards the end of each batch,my principal would take a break, leaving me to find a rhythm with his far-more-experienced-than-I mother. I would continue swinging, calling out the same chant, “Yoi-sho, yoi-sho!”as his mother added water and adjusted the rice between each swing, until eventually there wasn’t an individual grain of rice remaining. Having given it her mark of approval, this time she held up a hand as if to make me wait. Rather than asking me to help her heft it out of the mortar as we had each time before, my principal’s mother pulled off a ball of mochi from the mass, tore it in half and handed me a piece. She looked around slyly as if to make sure no one was watching and patched the spot she’d torn it from. Then nodding and sharing a quickly whispered “itadakimasu,” we popped them into our mouths, sharing hums of enjoyment.
It may have been that I’d worked up a considerable hunger pounding three batches of mochi, or perhaps it was this particular batch, or even the experience of sharing that moment, but whatever it may have been, that was the single best bite of mochiI had had all day. It was sweet beyond anything you could expect from a pounded ball of rice and the texture was perfectly chewy, giving evidence to that Japanese term mochi-mochi used when referring to a dense, chewy texture. It is was the kind of food experience I was looking for in Japan, something that went beyond explanation or understanding and beyond the food itself. It is a memory that I can’t help taking off the shelf every once and a while to grin about it again.
From there, we transferred the mochi mound to a tray, the smiles from the secret mochi still curling our lips, and back into the small tatami room we went. Inside we joined the rest of the family, setting up again to roll mochi and sip tea.
This New Years I’ll be back at home. There’ll be no actual pounding of mochi, but some daifukuwill most definitely be involved. And there’s no doubt that I’ll be glad to share the changing of the year with my family, but I can’t say I don’t feel a pang of sadness too. As the season here in Miami refuses to change and the day draws nearer, I definitely wish I could be back in Japan, pounding mochi with my family there too.
* Itadakimasuis a Japanese phrase that has no real direct English translation, though depending on the context can mean “I humbly receive,” or prior to a meal “Let’s eat,” or “Thank you for the food.”
About the author: The spark that lit Kevin Kilcoyne’s interest in Japanese culture began in elementary school through a friendship with his then classmate Keisuke. Since then, that passion has evolved and bloomed to encompass more than just video games and manga, leading Kevin to live in Japan as a participant of the JET program. During his time in Japan, Kevin sought out as many foods as he could, the experiences and taste memories lingering long after they had gone. Now he is forging a path to link his passions for Japanese food, history, and visual culture and is planning for his return to live in Japan once again. For now, you can find Kevin on Instagram (@kevinjkilcoyne) where he posts his illustration work. Keep an eye out for more posts and updates as Kevin delves more deeply into his passions for writing and food.