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Local church keeps Japanese tradition alive
Mochi photos 006
Livingston United Methodist Church members pound the mochi rice right after it was taken out of the grinder. - photo by Journal file photo

For any culture, the start of a new year is more than just the earth completing another journey around the sun.  It marks a new vision, new goals and for those of Japanese descent it brings about an old tradition.

Sherman Kishi and the Livingston United Methodist Church share the Japanese tradition of Mochi-tsuki with the Central Valley every year.

Mochi-tsuki, or the pounding of rice to make mochi (rice cakes), is an important event in the Japanese culture in preparation for the New Year. The town of Livingston comes together to recognize and partake in this annually.

“I can remember when I was young in the 1930s and we used to go to our neighbors to pound the rice as a family group,” said Kishi.  

Kishi explained that after the Japanese people returned to the Central Valley from relocation camps during the World War II years, the tradition was placed on hold until their children grew older.

“In the late '60s and '70s the youngsters decided to start this tradition again but then went to college,” said Kishi. “In the late '80s we started the event within the community church and then everyone could be involved. It’s also a great fundraiser for the church.”

There’s no wonder that the community gets involved, as the process of mochi-tsuki is not an easy task, but an eventful one at that.

“It takes us from eight in the morning until at least two in the afternoon,” said Kishi. “It’s a long, hard process of people working… But the more people the better.”

Mochi-tsuki is usually performed at the end of the year, from around Dec. 25-28 and the Livingston United Methodist Church observes this timing as well.

“It’s great because it’s right after Christmas when people are home visiting their families and they are able to help in the process of making the mochi,” said Kishi. “But also, they’re able to bring their children and continue to keep the custom alive.”

He explained the process to me as if it was a routine that he couldn’t forget if he tried.

“We do roughly 400 pounds of sweet rice, it’s not the ordinary rice, it’s much smaller grained and much more glutinous,” said Kishi. “We soak the 400 pounds for a night or two and everything is prepared during this period.”

The rice that has been soaked in water overnight is placed in four boxes made of bamboo with a screen on the bottom that allows for water to come up and steam the rice.

It is then placed in an usu, a large granite bowl, and pounded into a doughy mass with long wooden mallets called kine.

This is the part of the process that people gather around to witness and contribute to.

“They all want to do some pounding with the kines and we do let them come in and contribute,” said Kishi. “We like to have people come and help, it’s nice when they stay throughout the process.”

The pounding of the mochi provides a kind of entertainment that showcases the style of the Japanese tradition and allows the opportunity for people to learn this important laborious step of the mochi-tsuki process.

“After it’s pounded it becomes smooth,” Kishi added. “We use a lot of corn starch so it doesn’t stick and then the ladies make small dumplings—rice dumplings—little pieces probably about an inch and a half in diameter and one half inch thick… those are the dumplings.”

The traditional Japanese dumplings are then dried and cooled, packaged and sold.

“They also put ahn in it—a sugary, sweet substance made out of beans—and they make little balls out of it, cook it and prepare it,” said Kishi. “It’s put inside dumplings and called ahn mochi."

The ahn mochi is sold for two dollars apiece, which Kishi adds is a fair price, and the plain dumplings are sold for five dollars a pound. All of the money goes back to the church.

“This is our most successful fundraiser for the year and we are happy to keep the Japanese tradition alive in the Central Valley,” said Kishi.

This year’s Mochi-tsuki event will take place Dec. 28 at the Livingston United Methodist Church, 11695 Olive Ave., Livingston.

It is open to the public and Kishi encourages those interested to come to the event and get involved.

Pre-orders of mochi will be taken through Wednesday by calling: 209-394-2264.