Japanese Cultural Center Pounds Dough at Mochitsuki Ceremony

by Carolyn Bick

Hungry and curious, attendees crowded into one of the first floor rooms of the Japanese Cultural Center Jan. 27 to watch some among them — and the dextrous Takumi Yoshinaga — pound sweet sticky rice with water into a sticky dough in a mochitsuki ceremony.

The ceremony, explained the Seattle Japan Business Association’s Executive Director Yoshiharu Kurosawa, is a centuries-old Japanese Shinto tradition meant to welcome the new year and invite good luck from the gods for the coming year. It’s usually celebrated in a community setting, rather than an individual one at home. The dough is used to create mochi, or glutinous rice cakes, that are served in a traditional new year’s soup, called ozoni. Ozoni recipes vary by region and household, but they always include mochi.

Some of the mochi is also stacked to create small towers topped with a citrus fruit called yuzu, Kurosawa said. The towers sit on families’ altars as offerings to the gods for 15 days, after which the families eat them for luck and fortune.

Surrounded by a sea of blue tarp that served to catch any splashes of water, young Bruna MacLennon used a small, wooden hammer to deliver several whacks to the dough, her swings punctuated by Seattle-Tacoma’s Fukuoka Kenjinkai member Hiroshi Eto’s cries of, “Yoisho!

“‘Yoisho’ is kind of like saying, ‘Heave-ho!’ or something typical like that,” Eto said. “There is no real meaning to it, so to speak.”

Typically, Eto said, the ceremony is an annual event, usually in January, but was held a little late this year. In Japan, he said, it would be much earlier.

While it’s primarily used for ozoni in this particular scenario, Eto said, mochi is also used to create desserts with adzuki paste, or sweet red bean paste. It’s also paired with soy sauce, daikon radish, natto (fermented soybean), and sweetened soybean powder.

At tables just outside the splatter zone, a group of quick-working volunteers expertly crafted both sweet and umami treats out of freshly pounded dough, while others taught attendees how to make their own mochi at a different table by rolling the sticky dough in rice powder. Sandra Bridgefarmer held up two small, pebble-smooth mochi she had just made, and smiled for her companion’s camera.

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King 5’s Lori Matsukawa, left, swings her mallet down, as Takumi Yoshinaga, center, folds the dough, and Hiroshi Eto, right, and others look on, during the annual mochitsuki at the Japanese Cultural Center Jan. 27, 2019. (Photo: Carolyn Bick)
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Takumi Yoshinaga, right, waits for event volunteer Polo Schlemmer, left, to raise his mallet so Yoshinaga can fold the dough, during the annual mochitsuki at the Japanese Cultural Center on Jan. 27, 2019. (Photo: Carolyn Bick)
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Bruna MacLennon, left, smashes the dough with a wooden mallet, during the annual mochitsuki at the Japanese Cultural Center on Jan. 27, 2019. (Photo: Carolyn Bick)
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Takumi Yoshinaga, center, prepares the dough for another pounding, during the annual mochitsuki at the Japanese Cultural Center Jan. 27, 2019. (Photo: Carolyn Bick)
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Mochi snacks sit in a floured tray, during the annual mochitsuki at the Japanese Cultural Center Jan. 27, 2019. (Photo: Carolyn Bick)
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Tae Knapp bastes mochi snacks with a soy sauce mixture, during the annual mochitsuki at the Japanese Cultural Center Jan. 27, 2019. (Photo: Carolyn Bick)
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Shuto Sakama, right, offers mochi treats to attendees, during the annual mochitsuki at the Japanese Cultural Center in Seattle, Washington, on Jan. 27, 2019. (Photo: Carolyn Bick)

Featured Image: Stephen Ou, back center, and daughters Raina, center, and Sunya, back left, watch Takumi Yoshinaga, front left, clean the stone mochi pounding bowl, during the annual mochitsuki at the Japanese Cultural Center Jan. 27, 2019. (Photo: Carolyn Bick)

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