Mochi-making a New Year’s tradition

KAPA‘A — Black bean paste smeared the face of 21-month-old Sawyer Miyake, as he negotiated his way through a chewy treat.

“It’s his first mochi,” said Laurel Miyake, the child’s mother, who was visiting from Boston, Mass., Sunday. “We come here every year for the holidays, but this is the first time Sawyer is able to enjoy the mochi.”

Laurel and Sawyer Miyake were at the Kapa‘a Jodo Mission, where its members were busy making mochi for the New Year.

Mochi, made from special rice called mochigome, plays a big role in the New Year, called oshogatsu, considered by the Japanese to be a major celebration lasting for several days.

When the Japanese people arrived in Hawai‘i to work on the plantations, their New Year tradition came with them and was adopted as part of the plantation lifestyle.

Margaret Miyake, another observer Sunday at the Mission, lamented the fact that the majority of the workers there were elderly.

“This is why there is no sign in front of the church this year,” the church member said. “The people are getting older, so we’ll just be doing (enough) to take care of the orders that come in from former customers and the church members.”

A similar story was relayed about the mochi making at the Hanapepe Soto Zenshuji Temple, where the event has been downplayed drastically, said a spectator who was enjoying the annual Waimea Lighted Parade on Saturday night.

“The same thing is happening at the Kapa‘a Hongwanji Mission,” the elderly church member said, offering a cup of coffee between the batches of steaming rice that would be transformed into the mochi. “They just do orders for their members, and they don’t have any to sell. But that’s what happens when the young people don’t come out.”

According to the Japanese American National Museum Web site, mochi making, or mochitsuki, is an all-day event that requires many hands, long hours and physical labor. But is also a time for fellowship and socializing with friends and family.

The family of Fujiko Mamura in Hanama‘ulu saw three generations of the ‘ohana collect at the matriarch’s home from as far away as Virginia and Germany to make mochi in the traditional method of pounding out the rice using wooden mallets, Gail Rombaoa said in an e-mail.

Derek Saiki, a college student home for winter break from the University of Hawai‘i, was one of the few younger people in attendance at the Kapa‘a church.

“The guys start early,” Saiki, a Kapa‘a High School graduate said. “Some of the guys come at 2 a.m. to start the fires. Me — I came at 4 a.m.”

The mochi, which traditionally is made before the New Year, is made into a decoration called kagami mochi, which is formed from two cakes, one larger than the other, with a bitter orange placed on top.

Mochi are also eaten in a soup called ozoni. Ingredients vary according to the different regions in Japan, states the Japanese American National Museum Web site.

In tales passed down from grandparents, eating the various vegetables at New Year would determine if a person would have a good year, or not. As examples, kelp, or kobu, symbolizes happiness (yorokobu), while the black bean symbolizes health (mame-na).

With one more weekend before New Year’s, many more families will be gathering this weekend to practice the more traditional mochitsuki, using wooden mallets and a stone usu.

• For more information on the tradition, visit


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