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Mochitsuki

It was the 1960s. All the aunties and uncles gathered together. They drove to the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre to wash and soak about 350 pounds of rice, set up the basement with tables and chairs, and check the equipment. This included one usu (mortar) carved from a tree shipped from B.C., a stained and tattered brown canvas about 8 x 8 feet, a yellow plastic utility bowl, a crooked wooden stand, old rags and rolls of paper towel, four handcrafted kine (mallets), and stackable wooden steamers for the rice. There were several pounds of rice in green Rubbermaid garbage pails; rusty, broken Coleman stoves with empty gas cylinders; boxes of cornstarch; thousands of little balls of ‘an’ (sweet red bean paste); plywood with bits of old, hard mochi (pounded rice cake) and cornstarch stuck on them from previous years; rags printed with Japanese words, to be used as hachi-maki (headbands); extra happi-coats (Japanese straight sleeved coat) hardened with mochi; cornstarch, and Uncle Doc’s kettle.

Everyone helped roll out the usu and kine from storage. We cleaned and soaked everything.

The following day, our aunties and uncles dragged the cousins out early in the morning to help. We turned all the gas elements on the stoves on high to start boiling six stacks of rice steamers. While Uncle Sumi steamed rice, the rest of us set up tables lengthwise in the East Room where the tsuku (pounding) was taking place. We put plywood on top of tables and scraped them clean of the previous year’s mochi. We covered surfaces with sifted cornstarch so steaming hot mochi wouldn’t stick to the wood.

Uncle Kiso brought out the first container of steaming rice and dumped it into the usu with a loud “yokkoisho (heave ho)!” The uncles “tsuku-ed” (kneaded) the rice with all their strength until the rice formed a big, dough-like mound.

Once the rice reached a certain consistency, the pounding began. The uncles or boy cousins stood around the usu and in a clockwise direction, started pounding in a slow, uniform manner. Within seconds, the pace picked up. Family and friends started cheering, “Faster, faster!” Everyone yelled and the men picked up speed until the mallets were a blur.

Finally, the last stage was the “turning”. This was the most memorable part, because my dad, Shig Sora, was the “turner”, while one of the uncles was the “pounder”. Any one of my uncles—Uncle Bob, Jim Nasu, Mr. Matsubushi or Uncle Doc—started pounding the rice slowly. My dad stuck his hand in and grabbed a piece of mochi, stretching and pulling it out.

Al Sora (L) and Shigeki Sora (R) at the Prince Hotel around 1976. In the background are many of my relatives including me on the far right in the brightly striped sweater.

An uncle kept pounding. My dad placed the piece on top (pound), in went his hand and pulled from the bottom (pound) and placed it on top (pound), pulled from the bottom (pound), placed it on top (pound). This continued with speed increasing until my dad’s hand was a blur, going into the usu and out with the mochi. With his left hand, he transferred water to his right, from a basin on a stand. He threw water onto the rice to reduce sticking, and to get relief from the scalding hot mochi! I remember holding my breath and sometimes hiding my face. I couldn’t stand the thought of Dad’s hand being pounded by that mallet. In my memory, he was never hit. If he was, no one ever told me. From time to time, for entertainment, older sansei (third generation) boys took turns at “turning”, only to be quickly thrown out. They were told, “hetakuso (not very good)!” or “urusai (nuisance)!” and replaced quickly with a “professional” nisei (second generation).

The rice, now a huge, five-pound blob of steaming mochi, was pulled out of the usu and thrown onto a piece of plywood to be transferred to the chigiru (tearing) tables, where it would be divided into six large sections. The sections were distributed to the waiting aunts, who crafted the blob into small balls of the exact same size. Understandably, there were several “supervisors” who did quality control on blob-cutting, ball size, distribution and speed.

Aunties and girl cousins circled the table. The aunties got a big piece of the blob and started cutting off little balls by hand, squishing them between their thumbs and forefingers. They pulled them off and threw the balls onto the table where we, the girls, molded them into small mochi cakes and placed them on waiting, cooling boards. We took the boards of mochi (maybe 100 cakes per board) to the tables set up outside the West Room, where they would cool, be flipped once and cooled some more.

We brought in the mochi, brushed off the cornstarch and bagged them. We weighed each bag and sold them at the JCCC Bazaar. Our aunties prepared a big communal lunch for all of us, in addition to all the work they themselves did for the mochitsuki!

Our freezers would be stocked with mochi until the next Boxing Day, when the cycle would start all over again.

* This article was originally published in Just add Shoyu: A Culinary Journey of Japanese Canadian Cooking (2010) by Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre.

© 2010 Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre

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