Enduring Elements

“Mochi is tough. When you bite into mochi, you have to use your teeth,” said the Rev. Shinkai Murakami, president of the Japanese Cultural Society of Maui.

Like mochi, Japanese culture and traditions – updated in a few instances – are strong on Maui. Just ask members of the society, whose Oshogatsu Traditions Dinner celebrating the new year was sold out on Saturday evening.

“The significance of the mochi is you have a small tiny grain. When you pound the mochi, the grain sticks together to become one. Family has to be like that, sticking together to become strong,” said Murakami, a Buddhist pastor.

The Japanese tradition is to not only eat mochi before the new year in both sweet and savory forms, but to place it in one’s home. The decorative kagami mochi holds a variety of meanings, including strength and luck.

Saturday’s Oshogatsu Traditions Dinner, held in the Wailuku Hongwanji Mission’s social hall, was centered around mochi. The society offered mochi-tsuki, or mochi pounding, demonstrations and mochi-making and -tasting stations, and served ozoni soup, a dish that features the sticky rice cake and is traditionally eaten before the new year.

The ozoni soup was made by Japanese Society of Maui Club member Ronald Fukumoto using a recipe passed down from his father, Yuiki Fukumoto. It featured root vegetables including daikon, carrots, gobo and hasu, or lotus root, as well as mushrooms, mizuna, shrimp, seasoned baby clams, chicken and, of course, mochi.

“Rooted vegetables grow under the ground, so they lay a strong foundation. Like the rooted vegetables, we need a strong foundation for our families,” Murakami said.

Leonard Oka demonstrated mochi-tsuki for the guests, many of whom took the opportunity to participate. Oka does the demonstration every year using equipment donated to the Maui Sons and Daughters of the Nisei Veterans such as a usu, which is the stone bowl in which the mochi is pounded, as well as new implements including two mallets made from guava trees donated by Japanese Cultural Society of Maui member Rod Ryugo.

“When you’re pounding the mochi, you’re giving your strength, your spirit into the mochi itself and you’re sharing with everyone else. The idea of it is to bring the community together. More than anything else you want to start the new year right with family and friends,” Oka said.

Oka described the step-by-step process he used to make mochi in the traditional fashion. He soaked store-bought mochi rice, which is sweeter and tougher than typical white rice, for two days. He then steamed the rice in traditional wooden steam boxes, the bottoms of which are made of bamboo matting so the steam can travel up through multiple boxes, making them stackable. Next he used a gas burner to heat water up, which he poured into the bottom of the usu. He started the mochi-tsuki by hand in order to bring the grains down to a finer consistency and then moved on to pounding the mochi with a mallet.

“And that’s the fun part everybody likes to contribute to,” he said.

However, the mochi used at the tasting stations and in the ozoni soup was created using machinery in the kitchen.

“We do it over here just as an educational, cultural experience for people. If they waited for us to do all the mochi, they’d be waiting all night for it,” Oka said.

Not only did the tools receive an update but the mochi itself did as well. At the tasting stations, attendees could make mochi using a traditional sweet adzuki bean filling, as well as new types of filling such as chocolate and peanut butter.

The dinner, which is usually held on a weekday, sold out at 100 tickets, surpassing expectations.

“We were pleasantly surprised. We have some returnees every year but it was nice to see some larger families get together,” said Kay Fukumoto, who was in charge of organizing the event for the Japanese Cultural Society of Maui.

For dinner, the guests enjoyed bentos catered by TJ’s Warehouse.

Other aspects of the event included a station for crafts and origami folding, as well as a game called jan-ken-pon (the Japanese version of rock-paper-scissors), in which players attempt to beat each other using hand symbols.

With 2015 around the corner, society member Lynn Araki-Regan read a description from the Japanese zodiac calendar of what it means to be born in the year of the sheep. According to Araki-Regan, some positive aspects of people born in the year of the sheep are that they are altruistic, creative, empathetic, intuitive, generous, gentle, compliant and romantic. On the other hand, some negative aspects of sheep are that they are self-pitying, pessimistic, vengeful, lazy, indecisive and careless.

Another New Year’s Japanese Buddhist tradition is to ring the temple bell 108 times on New Year’s Eve.

“All human beings carry 108 evil passions. Hitting a temple bell is attacking all the evil passions so for the new year you can start from zero, pure,” said Murakami.

* Hoku Krueger can be reached at hkrueger@mauinews.com.