Livingston church makes Japanese new year's treat

Akiko Simmers rolls the transformed mochi into a smooth ball before dusting it with rice powder during the annual Mochi Tsuki festival in Livingston on Saturday.
December 27th, 2008
SUN-STAR PHOTO BY LISA JAMES Akiko Simmers rolls the transformed mochi into a smooth ball before dusting it with rice powder during the annual Mochi Tsuki festival in Livingston on Saturday. December 27th, 2008

LIVINGSTON -- Rice steams in wooden boxes on top of roaring fires in a rural Livingston church yard. Men and women swing long wooden mallets to mash rice into a doughy mass in large granite bowls.

Inside the hall, volunteers pinch off golf-ball-sized portions from the hot rice loaf. Some are wrapped around a bean paste to make a sweet confection, others are set out on a long table to cool, to be consumed with sauces and dips.

This is mochi, a traditional Japanese new year's dish dating back more than 1,000 years and still enjoyed in Japan. But at United Methodist Church of Livingston, the treat is made each year in the traditional way, by hand. That doesn't happen much anymore in Japan, where most of the mochi is made by machine.

The mochi tradition in Livingston dates back at least 70 years to the Yamato Japanese farming colony, which was founded a little more than 100 years ago.

Sherman Kishi, 83, remembers making mochi at a neighbor's home as a boy in the mid-1930s. Mochi is a celebration of the new year, Kishi said. Shinto was the predominant Japanese religion, and the mochis were piled three high in a stack as an offering to the gods, then eaten by celebrants.

The Yamato Colony was founded on 1,000 acres near Livingston in 1907 and was a Christian community from its start, Kishi said, but the labor-intensive mochi tradition was established in homes in the colony.

World War II brought a halt to that. Families were sent to internment camps. Kishi was interned but volunteered to join the Army. He was sent to language school in the military intelligence service and was among the first U.S. troops to occupy Japan at the end of the war, serving as a translator-interpreter.

When the Yamato Colony members returned after the war, the mochi tradition was dormant, until some younger colony members pushed to revive it in the 1960s.

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Confections are a fund-raiser

So, the younger generation learned from its elders,

and the tradition was re-established at the church as a fund-raiser. The mochi is made and then sold in a day in the church yard and hall. Some of the equipment comes from the families who made mochi before the war, but there are modern touches.

The fires, in 55-gallon steel drums, use electric hot air blowers to keep the flames burning hot. The wooden mallets have plastic caps on the end to prevent splinters from getting in the rice. A modern grinder grinds the rice before it is pounded.

But for the most part, the process is done as it was many years ago in Japan, with an army of volunteers.

One of the volunteers Saturday was Miki Ishikida, a University of California at Merced professor who teaches Japanese at the school. Ishikida said that while mochi is popular in Japan, it is machine-made now. It was made by hand in her grandparents' day, she said. The Livingston tradition is a good one, Ishikida said, because it brings people together.

It's a family affair, Kishi added, introducing his wife, daughters and granddaughters, all at work making mochi.

Help comes from miles away

Family members return from the Bay Area and Fresno to help in the annual event, and church members, Japanese-American or not, all pitch in. All are welcome, Kishi said.

"They find it very interesting," he said of those without Japanese ancestry. "Once they find out how interesting it is, they come to help."

The process starts with 500 to 600 pounds of "mochi rice," Kishi said. It is much stickier than conventional rice. The rice is cleaned and then soaked overnight. The next morning, the fires are lit, and rice is put into small wooden boxes called seiro. The boxes are stacked above a water tub on top of the makeshift furnaces and rotated as the bottom box of rice gets done.

From there it goes to the grinder and then to the granite bowls, called usu. There, it is pounded by the mallets in a process called mochitsuki, to soften the doughy mass. The hot loaves of rice then go into the church hall to be molded into small balls. Corn starch is used to make the mochi less sticky. Workers wear gloves, but sometimes get blisters from handling the hot rice.

Ahn mochi is the sweet concoction made from wrapping mochi around bean paste. The plain mochis are spread out on long tables to cool. Workers brush the corn starch off each treat, and they are packaged for sale.

Tradition may outlive colony

Mochi sales were set to start about 2 p.m. In years past, the church fund-raiser has brought in about $2,000. What didn't get sold Saturday would be frozen. It is easily thawed in a microwave, Kishi said, another modern convenience the older generation didn't have.

The plain mochis are eaten with a fish-flavored soup called ozooni or dipped in sugar and soy sauce or other dips.

While the crowd Saturday appeared robust, the future of the Yamato Colony is tenuous, Kishi said. Younger generations have moved away to pursue their own careers, families and traditions.

"Our farming colony is going to disappear," he said.

The mochi tradition may live on, however, in church members, of Japanese descent and not

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