Monday, December 31, 2012

Mochi, Mochi, Mochi

While Christmas is an attempt by the American in me to inflict my culture on my sons, New Year's, Oshougatsu in Japanese, is just pure, unadulterated, Japanese.

Not, let me state, that I particularly have a problem with this given my New Year 'traditions' mainly involved eating smokes oysters on Ritz Crackers with cheese-in-a-can while sipping sparkling apple cider. Party central I so was not.

Japan however, as stated, New Year's is the major holiday in Japan. If Christmas is for partying over here, New Year's is what Christmas is in America, a time for family and traditions and boy does Beloved's family go for it all. Thus while the warm glow of Christmas is still touching and the Christmas cookies are still piled high, I load the family up for the 12-14 hour drive down to my in-laws' house in Yamaguchi Prefecture at 1 am on the 27th.

While at Beloved's parents house, the rest of her family, her two sisters, their husbands, and various cousins, aunts, uncles, and whatnot come in for a visit as well (Though the last few years have seen a sudden growth as Beloved's cousin now has four kids, we have two, and one of her sisters one). The main reason being... mochi.

Mochi, for those of you who don't know, are pounded rice cakes. They were made in the day for a way to keep rice over the New Year's holiday (Traditionally, no work should be done over New Year's, a prohibition that more or less stops at the kitchen door). Traditionally, mochi rice is steamed over a boiler that rests over an open fire in wood boxes. The steamed rice is then taken to a stone or wood mortar and beaten the hell out of with a large, heavy wooden mallet. Once pounded into submission, it's taken to a table, and rolled off into balls (If you're in my wife's family's area. Some areas roll the mochi out into a sheet and cut it into squares). These are served on or around New Year's in a variety of dishes, soups, grilled, with anko bean paste inside, etc.

Now, that's how it's traditionally done. Most Japanese, like many Americans regarding churning butter or making ice cream by hand, may have seen it done a few times, they may have even participated in it once or twice in a kind of-this-is-how-it-used-to-be-and-boy-ain't-we-happy-that-we-don't-do-it-anymore kind of way, but, again like how most Americans get their butter or ice cream from the store, so do most Japanese. If you're feeling fancy, you can order mochi from a shop. Those who really want to go all out will steam their rice in a rice cooker and then use their bread makers to beat the mochi. Almost no one goes to the trouble of doing the whole steam it over an open fire and then wield the hammer to make it for their own mochi and not in any large number.

Except my wife's family.

The first time I came to Japan was to spend New Year's with my (then) girlfriend's family and I was introduced to mochi making (Up till that time I thought mochi was for ice cream). That's when I found out that Beloved's family, especially her aunt, are some what of a traditionalist. Her aunt, by the way, was ecstatic. Pounding that mochi takes a lot of energy, the hammer is heavy and Beloved's family makes a ton of mochi. Usually the job of pounding that mochi is a guy's job. This is our manly feat of strength for the end of the year. Sadly, Beloved's family was lacking in the XY person bit. Those that were there were getting a bit long in the tooth so Beloved's aunt was forced to deal with, what she mockingly called, women's mochi (i.e. the pounding was done by women and thus without the force or power a man can bring). So it's easy to see why she was so happy when her niece brought home a guy, a rather large American guy, and one who didn't have family in Japan that he would be called away to or knew that mochi is now usually bought at the store.

I believe you can see where this is going. I have now hammered out the mochi for 7 years (We missed two due to Makoto and Hikaru's births). And, even better, Beloved's sisters also managed to get married, so now there's at least two or three men not only getting into pounding mochi, but speed pounding!

And it gets better, then Beloved had two sons, both of whom have a large, strong American for a father, and who will be trained in the ways of mochi making. Pretty much Beloved's aunt has declared that she can now die happy, resting in the idea that her family's legacy of mochi making on New Year's is secure and will continue long after she is gone. And she's right. This year saw Makoto enthusiastically joining in, wielding a child's hammer. The other kids, Hikaru included, did it once and then decided that there were far more interesting things to do, Makoto kept coming back to join in bringing the malleters to three, Daddy leading with the largest, smashing down his full weight with a loud "HA!" (A summer of ax use did wonders for easing things out), then my brother-in-law who followed with his medium hammer shouting "Sore!" (so-ray), and finally Makoto with his kids hammer thumping down and screaming "GoBusters!"

Beloved's aunt beamed.

Later, standing around the table rolling the mochi into balls (Something that a summer at a pizza parlor helped out with) she was just thrilled at the quality of the mochi produced this year. Makoto of course had to mention that he had mochi making at his school, but he didn't need to listen to the teachers because he already knew all about mochi making.

He better, he has a lifetime ahead of him in terms of beating the crap out of mochi every New Year's with a large heavy hammer!

1 comment:

  1. Hey Man,

    Thanks for the culture class, so much to learn when we travel. The pictures are great, really makes the story!

    Love how you keep your family deep in family traditions, that's how the best kids are made!

    Funny thing, you can't drive more than 6 hours in Korea, you'll end up in the ocean or NK! We don't hear much about people driving 12 HOURS!

    Very cool!