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Friday, January 3, 2014

My Mochi Adventure And How I Lived To Tell The Tale

The new year in Japan always begins with a monstrous event that ends up killing many elderly and many of its young... and does its best to take out as many gaijin (foreigners) as possible. It's a horrible part of the way of life (and death) here in Japan that stupefies as it feeds our bloodlust for more.

I am, of course, talking about mochi.

Mochi () is Japanese rice cake made of mochigome, a short-grain japonica glutinous rice.

So why is it a killer?

It's because this very sweet rice cake is very, very chewy and just when you think it's safe to swallow - the consumer discovers that Haaaaaaaawwwwwcccchhhhhh! It's not. And explosive blue-faced choking becomes yet another ritual in Japanese new year traditions.

I was lucky enough, or unlucky enough to not only be a witness in the manufacture of these killer rice cakes, but also in their attempt to murder.

The manufacture of these Japanese rice cakes - mochi - is called mochitsuki, which is done as part of the Oshugatsu, which is what the Japanese call a New Year's Celebration... you know.. out with the old people, stupid babies and insipid gaijin who have invaded their towns and cities purporting to teach everyone how English is cool.

Well... at least that's why I think I was invited out to the Town of Kurobane back in 1991... which became part of my hometown, the City of Ohtawara in Tochigi-ken back on October 1, 2005.

Invited by the Kanemaru family - Mr. Kanemaru was one of my two bosses with the Ohtawara Board of Education (OBOE) office where I worked as a junior high school assistant English teacher there on the JET (Japan Exchange & Teaching) Programme.

I had arrived only months earlier from Toronto - first time ever living away from home, and as such, I was forced to trust everyone to survive... but sometimes, that trust can be misplaced... as I trusted Kanemaru-san.

Arriving at my home at 8AM on January 1, 1991, I had no idea I had previously agreed to go with him to his family home... no idea what so ever.

Still... using his Japanese to English dictionary, he pointed out: come my home now. And then he smiled and expelled some cigarette smoke... which was quite a trick considering he didn't have a lit cigarette in hand... which also confused me, because he always did: Golden Bat (read about the history of some of the current Japanese cigarette brands HERE... it could change your opinion on something or another).

Anyhow... since I had been out the night before with my best bud Matthew Hall and his boss, Mr. Suzuki, whereby they had dragged me from my boredom kicking and screaming out to the Ohtawara Temple to literally ring in the new year - where, for a mere five yen, I got to pull the rope and ring the bell three times. It made a whole lot of the locals citizenry smile as they saw that their local gaijin was turning Japanese, rather than sitting at home watching porno movies turning Japanese. (What? You didn't know THAT was what that old song was about? (Going bling... squinting... like the Asian eyes. I didn't say it was politically correct.)

So... after zipping up and getting some clothes - the last time I went to Kanemaru's place it was for a homestay for a night), and this time was no exception - we drove off for 20 minutes down south and, unless I'm completely bonkers, to the east to Kurobane where he lived.

We hoped out, let his wife come and take my bags to the house, while he dragged me around to the backyard where several men with wooden mallets were beating the living crap out of something in a giant wooden bucket or half-barrel.

Three men. Whomp! Whomp! Whomp! in succession... and then another man kneeling quickly jumping in to fold the mess before quickly pulling away so the three beaters could beat whatever it was they were beating.

I learned a few minutes ago in 2014, that this was called mochitsuki... and it's an all-day event (so you better start early!) that involved pounding wetted down glutinous rice.

Upon seeing me, all of the men were startled, which nearly caused the rice mass folder to be nearly brained - but the mallet swinger missed somehow.

But they were only startled for a second or minutes. Probably minutes. Many minutes.

Although everyone had heard about me being in Japan as the new AET, few out here in the boonies of Kurobane had glimpsed me... or had even ever seen a real-live foreigner before. God's truth. TV, movies, magazines - yes. Standing there in front of them, I was a curiosity... and I was certainly a big one, as I towered over these farmers.. because I was certainly in farm country... where I couldn't even see another house nearby.

I quickly realized - with numerous glasses of rice wine quickly downed - that this whole mochitsuki thing was not just about getting together to brain someone with a wooden mallet... no, it was about the neighborhood getting together as friends... as family. And I was now a part of it.  

Now that I was buzzed from the rice wine.

Since Kanemaru-san had brought me and had been away for an hour, he and I quickly took up arms (mallets) against a sea of troubles (mochi rice goop), and beat the living daylights out of it with a third lucky beater and one very terrified new mochi folder who now had to contend with not just a bunch of drunken neighbors beating the goopy rice, but something even more terrifying. A gaijin. An armed one. And a strong one.

The first thing you should know about me, is that back until the mid-1990s, I was tall and lanky and didn't start working out 6x a week and taking all sorts of legal and illegal supplements until about 1995, when I grew muscular.

No... back in 1991, I was weak... and that wooden mallet was heavy... and I was buzzed... and dammit all to hell, I was 12 inches (30 centimeters) taller than everyone except Kanemaru-san, and I must have had about 50 pounds (22.8 kilograms) on the next heaviest person there.

But... these guys knew what they were doing. Still...

... aside from the rice goop folder, how difficult could it be to pound rice with a mallet... in order with the other two (and the folder)... while we were all drunk... and everyone began singing (not me!)...

Whomp! Whack!!! Whomp! (fold) Whomp! Whack!!! Whomp!

I was the one whacking off... so to speak. I beat the crap out of that mochi with every fiber of my being... which wasn't much, but I thought it was.

After about 10 of those Whacks!!! that mallet got heavy... and with the next 10, I think I passed out.

Not really, but new pounders came in, while we three whackers and whompers got some refreshment - more rice wine. Rice wine is what you folks call sake... but sake is actually a generic Japanese word to describe alcohol. Rice wine sake is actually called nihoneshu sake... or maybe even shochu.

A few minutes later, we were back in.

Whomp! Whomp! Whomp!

I was turning Japanese - I really think so!     

Finally, when all of us beaters had beaten enough, a cheer lit out - and I joined them - and it was evident we had survived the ordeal, with none happier than the little folder man who cam over and hugged me before suddenly remembering to step back and bow.

When he stood up, I hugged him and everyone cheered!

Perhaps because I was with the locals and the locals did things their way, someone leaned down into the half-barrel and we all saw how the rice mass was now smooth and shiny... and with no rice grains visible anywhere... and that first someone pulled away a small mass of the stuff and quickly formed it into a patty cake - and then offered it to me.
Mochi.  Photo from HERE

I shook my head no and tried to say I was not worthy of this honor, but the folder in perfect English smiled, bowed deep and said: "Guest."

So I bowed deeply to everyone accepted the mochi cake... bowed deeply and help it for a few seconds... kissed  it (no tongue) and then took a bite...

How did it taste?

Wait a minute... I'm still trying to pull that piece away from the mochi cake... holy crap is this thing sticky!

Now separated, I begin chewing... while the others quickly form mochi cakes themselves one at a time... and I'm still chewing... oh man... I took too big an effing bite.... there's a lot to chew... and it doesn't seem to matter how much you chew - how could it?! We just beat the living tar out of this thing for hours!

I wanted to take what I had in my mouth and by hand separate them into two gooey balls... but I wasn't sure if that was bad form or not.

While I chewed... someone began choking... then another... they got whacked and whomped on the back and now breathing again they continued to either chew it down some more or swallow it.

I swallowed.

I did not choke. It was delicious!

Smarter and now wiser, having now seen some five men in total choke on the mochi, I took a much smaller piece.

Wisdom isn't all it's cracked up to be.

A small piece of mochi can still choke you as I soon learned.

I turned purple... which is the color a person with brown skin turns when they are choking apparently (Kanemaru later showed me the English word aubergine to describe my color as he laughed his maniacal smoky laugh). 

But... many of my newfound friends came over to thump me on the back and get me a fresh cup of sake.

But that effing mochi is sooooo delicious... it was like honey... but better... and so... I kept nibbling at my rice cake.. taking ever smaller nibbles until it was all gone.

Then the mochi was taken inside where the women would fold the remainder into cakes for later, but it was also there that they made small ones for themselves, the little naive kiddies and the apparently alzheimerish elderly, who surely must have know that this stuff... this mochi... could kill them with a single bite.

Ahh... but for a country that tempts danger with the eating of poisonous fugu, raw fish et al and natto (rotting soy beans), the Japanese are a fearless bunch.

I haven't eaten mochi in decades now... and I miss it... but... as I get older, I know that there is a Japanese rice cake with my name on it out there somewhere.

And... according to Japan Today's website: The National Police Agency and Fire and Disaster Management Agency said Thursday that four people had died after choking on “mochi” rice cakes.
Furthermore, 10 people in Tokyo were hospitalized on Wednesday after choking on “mochi.” Of the 10, nine were over 65, and two remain in a coma.

... just in case you thought I was kidding.

Andrew (it nearly got me!) Joseph
PS: Taken from the Japanese American National Museum Website (HERE): 
Mochitsuki begins the day before, with the washing of the mochigome (sweet glutinous rice) and leaving it to soak overnight in large kettles or tubs. Early the next morning the mochigome is ready to be steamed in the seiro—wooden steaming frames. Three or four seiro are stacked one on top of the other and placed over a kettle of boiling water.
After the rice is cooked, it is dumped into the usu, or mortar, made from a wood stump, stone or concrete form. The hot cooked rice in the usu is pounded with a kine or wooden mallet. With enthusiasm and force, the mochi is pounded until the mass of rice is smooth and shiny, with no discernible individual grains of rice. An essential participant in the pounding is the person assisting who quickly darts his or her hand into the usu and turns the rice before the next rhythmic pound.
The smooth, consistent mass of mochi is turned onto a cloth or paper covered table, already spread with a thin layer of mochiko (sweet rice flour). This makes the sticky mass easier to handle. An adept person pinches off small portions of the steaming hot mochi for others, who quickly form them into flattened bun shapes with their hands. The formed mochi is then set aside to cool and is ready to eat.
PPS: We didn't follow the mochi recipe as set out by the museum exactly... but maybe we should have. Haaaaaawwwwwaaaaaaccccchhhhh!
PPPS: The photo above is NOT from this particular adventure, but is my photograph and anyone is welcome to use it.   

1 comment:

  1. Happy New Year, Mochi Man! We had some mochi on 1/1. I bet you can find an mochi maker machine up there where you live, ya know. The wonders of modern technology! :-)