In a cold gym on a brisk Saturday afternoon, I lifted a heavy wooden mallet above my head and aimed for the large pile of steaming white rice directly below me.
Taking a deep breath, I struck the gooey rice with as much force as I could, trying not to hit the large wooden container it was sitting in. Pounding the rice felt like striking a giant bowl of oatmeal or glue. The mallet stuck to the rice for a moment, but with a little push, I tried again.
I lifted the mallet for a second time, and pounded once more as adults and children looked on and cheered.
This, briefly, is how it feels to make mochi, pounded rice cakes that Japanese people often eat in the winter in soups and for desserts.
In Namerikawa, elementary schools often hold mochi-making festivals, or mochitsuki, so students can learn the detailed tradition of mochi-making. I went to two mochitsukis last fall/winter and attended my third one last month.
Briefly described, mochi is made by soaking rice overnight; it is then put into a large usu (mortar) and pounded with a mallet. One person rotates the usu and rice inside while the other pounds it until the texture is right. Once the rice is ready, it is formed into a ball or square shape and flavored (red bean paste, green tea, sesame are some popular toppings). There are also more modern ways to make mochi, and it sold in ice cream form at Trader Joe’s. These are some photos from last month’s mochitsuki at Kitakazumi Elementary School.