Photo credit: Darren Yasukochi
“1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4…” Cadence numbers followed by kine (wooden mallets) hitting soft mochi early on a Saturday morning in December is one of my first childhood memories. As a child, I recall waking up as the sun was rising, hopping in the car, and driving to my great uncle’s house. As soon as we stepped out of the car, the olfactory senses kicked in – the dewy scent of December mornings mixed with the sweet smell of steaming mochigome in the air.
I’d run up the long driveway and greet everyone with “good morning” or “ohayo gozaimasu” (which was a must) before I could start pounding. On the outskirts of the usu (the mortar), my uncles and aunties all stood around with one hand in their pockets and the other holding cups of coffee. After washing my hands, I’d run straight to the usu, and my uncle would help me hold the kine as we pushed and pounded the mochi.
"After washing my hands, I’d run straight to the usu, and my uncle would help me hold the kine as we pushed and pounded the mochi."
Mochitsuki is my favorite day of the year because it is so strongly rooted in the Issei and Nisei legacy, making it one of the oldest cultural traditions for Nikkei families. Beyond pounding the rice, mochitsuki is all about family. My family, the Yasukochi family, has been pounding mochi in the US for over 100 years; the only year they missed was in 1942, their first year in camp. When we get together for mochitsuki, family from all over the country gathers around the usu and the momii table to chat about the past year, their kids, and anything in between.
"My family, the Yasukochi family, has been pounding mochi in the US for over 100 years"
To this day, everyone who is able-bodied is encouraged to pick up a kine and pound mochi. From pushing the freshly steamed rice to aiming, pounding, pulling, and lifting, technique is everything. You see fathers teaching sons and daughters, uncles teaching nieces and nephews, and the elders on the sideline all giving their two cents. In my lifetime, I have seen my grandpa and great uncle “turn” the mochi and at some point, they “retired” from that job – my uncle has since taken over turning the mochi. As a Yonsei and Shin-Nisei, mochitsuki for me is about continuing the legacy of the Issei, but also creating a new narrative for the Shin-generation.
"As a Yonsei and Shin-Nisei, mochitsuki for me is about continuing the legacy of the Issei, but also creating a new narrative for the Shin-generation."
While many of the Shin-Issei today come from major cities where the traditional way of making mochi is a street performance, there are many who come from more inaka (rural) areas where they continue to make mochi with an usu and kine. My dad’s family, for example, is from Hitoyoshi, Kumamoto – a small town where my relatives pound mochi every year. Just like the Issei in the early 1900s, I feel that as a Shin-Nisei, I am continuing their legacy.
"Mochitsuki provides a space for my family to come together because as we all know, families can drift apart from generation to generation."
Mochitsuki provides a space for my family to come together because as we all know, families can drift apart from generation to generation. It’s ironic and funny, but fresh mochi (sticky and soft) is very much the glue that holds our family together.