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Livingston mochi event brings together old friends, generations of family

Annual Mochi Tsuki in Livingston

Each year a reunion of sorts occurs at the Livingston United Methodist Church where generations of families gather ahead of New Year's to make a Japanese treat called mochi.
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Each year a reunion of sorts occurs at the Livingston United Methodist Church where generations of families gather ahead of New Year's to make a Japanese treat called mochi.

Each year a reunion of sorts occurs at the Livingston United Methodist Church where generations of families gather ahead of New Year’s to make a Japanese treat called mochi.

Japanese immigrants in Livingston began making mochi on their own after World War II, likely because they couldn’t buy it in the United States, said Dawn Nakashima, who lives in Berkeley but returns to Livingston and participates in the event each year. The Livingston Sansei, or grandchildren of the first Japanese immigrants called Issei, began the tradition of making mochi in the late 1970s as part of their youth group activities.

“Over time, the ones of us in the youth group all had kids of their own,” Nakashima said. “Very few people still farm, but the event has kind of sustained itself. The ones who have done it before passed on the ins and outs to others.”

Mochi is a glutinous rice cake made before New Year’s celebrations each year in the Japanese culture. It’s often eaten in a Japanese New Year soup called ozoni, or zoni, and with dipping sauces such as soy sauce mixed with sugar. Mochi is made through a precise process: The rice must be soaked for a couple of days before it is steamed and ground, pounded, “cut” and formed into perfect little cakes using cornstarch to dry it, which is then brushed off before it’s packaged.

Like Nakashima, 57, many of the Sansei who participate don’t live in the area anymore but return each year for the holidays – and to make mochi.

“It’s a good way to catch up,” Nakashima said. “It’s a tie to our cultural roots. A lot of the third generation don’t speak Japanese, and many people aren’t Japanese, but they still enjoy the event.”

Alan Okuye and Mike Ohki have been a two-man pounding team for years at the event. The Ohkis were some of the first people the Okuyes met when moving to Livingston, and Alan and Mike have known one another for years.

“Our grandmas were best friends,” Mike joked.

“I’ve probably known Mike the longest of anyone,” Alan added.

Okuye now lives in Hawaii but returns every year for the holidays. Each year, he teams up with Mike at the mochi-making event, using wood mallets with plastic ends to pound the mochi to a perfectly smooth consistency.

Many times, generations of families participate. For example, Nakashima’s father, Tom, watched and socialized at the event Monday. Leah Nakashima, a 20-year-old college student attending Brown University, also helped. That’s three generations of Nakashimas represented at the event.

Sherman Kishi, 90, remembers friends hauling over equipment to each others’ homes and barns on sleds.

For years, Kishi turned and applied water to the mochi in a granite bowl, called an usu, while a team pounded it with mallets. One time, Kishi’s brother accidentally smashed his hand in the usu with the mallet. “I think I am the only one who’s had their hand smashed,” Kishi said, laughing. “I remember it very clearly.”

“Year by year, people return,” said Harrison Uyematsu. “A lot of the people, you only see them here.”

Brianna Calix: 209-385-2477

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