When it comes to preparing for the new year, I think it’s safe to say that Japan does a pretty good job. For weeks leading up to New Year’s, and on the day itself of course, Japan has lots of festivals, events, and traditions that have long been a part of the country’s history and culture, and which just about every family in Japan faithfully participates in – like cooking traditional New Year’s food called O-sechi, or decorating the house with a statue made of rice cakes and a tangerine.
But out of the many traditions in Japan meant to start off the New Year on the right foot, one in particular has always stood out to me – mochi-tsuki. After first hearing about this country-wide event, I knew that my year in Japan would not be complete if I didn’t attend a mochi-tsuki.
Mochi-tsuki is an important traditional event where friends and families gather together to pound rice to make mochi, or rice cakes. It’s usually performed at the end of the year around December 25th to 28th. Historically, mochi became a popular food to make for New Year’s since it keeps for a fairly long time at room temperature and is also a convenient, portable food. Japanese people eat homemade mochi at the start of the year, usually grilled and flavored with soy sauce.
Though there are quite a few mochi-tsuki festivals throughout Osaka meant to attract large crowds, the closest temple hosting a mochi-tsuki was at least two hours away from me, and would’ve require multiple train rides to get there. Luckily, though, I happened to find out about a smaller mochi-tsuki event happening in Minoh!
So on the morning of December 28th, I took a short bus ride to the address where the event was set to take place, and ended up stumbling upon a small gathering of a few families, several young adults, and a handful of children and elderly people in the middle of a neighborhood. When I arrived, I could tell that everyone was surprised to see me there, but they were very polite and welcoming. One of the attendees even took the time to explain the mochi-making process – which is super simple, actually.
First, a special type of sticky rice that’s been soaked in water overnight is steamed in metal crates until the rice is cooked through and soft.
Once the rice is ready for pounding, it’s placed in an usu, or a large bowl made of wood or stone. The one at the event I went to was made of stone. A heavy, hammer-like mallet made of wood is used to pound the rice into paste. Once the steamed rice is placed in the usu, the pounding begins!
Pounding requires a two person effort – while one person pounds the rice with the mallet, another shifts the rice in the usu to ensure evenness and prevent the mochi from sticking to the sides.
The steamed rice is shaped and pounded until it becomes a large, sticky mass, which usually takes about 10-15 minutes. Once the desired consistency is reached, it’s ready for shaping.
The pounders transferred the sticky heap into a wooden crate and brought the crate to an elderly lady who began shaping it into bite-sized cakes.
The process continued for a few more hours after that until all of the steamed rice was pounded and formed into hundreds of bite-sized mochi cakes, and then set aside to be stored until New Year’s. It was a fascinating and memorable experience overall, and I’m grateful that the small gathering of locals who put on the event were quick to welcome me into their group this year.
I’m happy to say that I can officially cross “attend a mochi-tsuki” off my Japan bucket list. 🙂