Japan from the inside out

Shogatsu: Pounding Mochi for New Year’s Day in Japan

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, December 30, 2007

NOW THAT the Christmas decorations have been taken down, Japanese attention has turned to the real yearend holiday, which is the most important holiday on the calendar—New Year’s Day.

Though Christmas has become a part of life in Japan, it’s little more than a festival of light and a commercial opportunity. It may be a pleasant diversion for children and young people, but unless it falls on a weekend, 25 December is still a working day here.


One of the perennially popular seasonal songs in the US is I’ll Be Home for Christmas (written in 1943 at the height of World War II). But the yearend holiday the Japanese come home for falls on 1 January, and that’s the day everyone around the country has been getting ready for.

Just as there are many traditions associated with Christmas in Western countries, there are also many traditions associated with New Year’s Day in Japan.

One such custom is mochitsuki, or mochi rice pounding, which is performed to produce a traditional food. Mochi is a type of rice cake made from a very glutinous form of rice, and in the old days people made it by hand using a mortar and a wooden mallet. Steaming rice is pounded into sticky whole and then formed into either rounded cakes or sheets that are cut into squares.

Mochi has long been an essential part of some religious ceremonies, and none are more important than those held at yearend. Three mochi cakes of different sizes, called kagamimochi (mirror mochi), are displayed as a decoration in both homes and shrines. The cakes themselves are also eaten in zoni, a kind of soup that can be made in several different ways. The most auspicious food eaten during the season, zoni is thought to have originated in the 15th century in a ritual for partaking food with the divinities.


Those people who still pound mochi for tradition’s sake do it out in the yard at their home with family or friends. But the custom is also performed at other sites. One example is the mochitsuki shown in the first photo at the municipal offices of Mima, Tokushima Prefecture. The city employees of Mima hold the ceremony annually to mark the end of the work year, but they add a twist—they swing their hammers in time with music played on shamisens.

Twenty members of Udatsu, a shamisen mochitsuki preservation association, work the mochi while music is performed in the background. This year, they hammered out 36 kilograms worth. Other city employees formed the rice cakes, which were distributed to people who came to the offices that day. The custom in Mima of combining mochi with music predates City Hall–it has 420 years of history behind it.

Mochi demand is much too great to fill completely by hand, however, so even as you read this small businesses throughout the country are operating round-the-clock to put a smile on the faces of mochi lovers nationwide. The second photo shows the mochi made at Co-Op Kobe in the city of the same name, which began production this season on the 26th. Their small plant employs 230 people, including students hired just for the season, and the work will go on 24 hours a day for a six-day period until the 31st.

This year, they expect to make about 10.5 million cakes weighing 40 grams each. The reports cheerfully inform us that if the Co-Op Kobe cakes were piled one on top of another, the stack would be 210 kilometers high, or 56 times higher than Mt. Fuji.


The folks in the previous two examples are making mochi to be eaten, but third photo shows the miko, or shrine maidens, at the Suwa Shinto shrine at Nishiyama-machi in Nagasaki City making two giant kagamimochi for decoration.

The two bruisers they’ll be slapping together are made with mochi rice grown in Isahaya and will weigh 30 kilograms each. After they finished the pounding, they let the mochi set until the 30th–today!–and then put the two huge cakes together. One miko said the more she pounded, the more she enjoyed the sensation of the rice sticking to the mallet, though she still wound up with callouses. (And probably sore shoulders, too.)

Not all mochi rice is used for food. This is Japan, after all, so some of it is diverted to sake production, as you can see in the fourth photo.

The Aso Shinto shrine in Aso, Kumamoto Prefecture, makes sweet sake to distribute to the people who visit the shrine on New Year’s Day. They finished the job on the 21st, and are letting fermentation work its magic until New Year’s Eve.

They use rice donated by parishioners. The reports say that sake made with mochi rice has a more full-bodied, sweeter flavor, but I’ve never had any, so I can’t confirm that.


Sometimes at this time of year people in Japan ask me if I’ve got that New Year’s spirit, but I always have to disappoint them by saying no. The New Year’s spirit, much like the Christmas spirit, is the result of holiday experiences accumulated from the age of zero, and the American New Year’s holidays of my childhood were too boring to create nostalgic memories. All the fun came during Christmas, it was too cold to go outside and play, and television, with college football games morning, noon, and night, was even more boring than usual.

I did pound mochi once during my first year in Japan. Rather than put me in the New Year’s spirit, however, it just reminded me how lucky I was that I don’t have to make a living from manual labor. It’s a lot of work swinging that mallet, and it took a lot longer than I thought for the rice to congeal into a whole. I enjoy the taste and consistency of unpounded mochi rice, but don’t consider mochi rice cakes a treat—too gummy and hard to chew—so I’ve politely declined invitatations since then. The enjoyment came from the sweat-based camaraderie developed with the other people who worked just as hard as I did.

For a video of mochitsuki, look in the third column from the right on the list of this page of Brovision videos of life in Japan (link also on the right sidebar). That’s exactly what happens!

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