Mochi-pounding tradition ending after 32 years

‘It’s just that somebody’s missing,’ Fujita says of event without his wife

Carolyn Fujita

Carolyn Fujita

In the weeks before the Fujita family’s annual mochi-pounding event, Carolyn Fujita was always hard at work. She shopped for ingredients and planned the meals. She washed the rice and made goodie bags for every friend and neighbor.

So after her death in November 2016, the Fujita family decided that this year’s mochitsuki would be the last, bringing to a close a 32-year tradition that drew nearly 100 family members and friends every year.

“It was kind of emotional doing it (without her),” husband Tom Fujita said. “I can do the shopping, but it’s just that somebody’s missing.”

On Dec. 16, Fujita invited family, friends and neighbors to his Kahului home for one last hurrah. He said he has a list of 53 families he hands out flyers to; about 30 to 40 families usually show up.

The holiday tradition started in 1985, when Fujita and a few classmates from the Lahainaluna High School Class of 1962 gathered in the home of Donald Terada. They pounded mochi there every year until the gathering got too big and had to be moved to the Fujitas’ backyard around 1990. The event grew to include more children, grandchildren, neighbors and, of course, more rice.

Dean Tokishi (left) and Dave Meyer take turns pounding cooked rice into mochi while Derek Fujita stands ready to fold the mochi in between whacks Dec. 16 at Tom Fujita’s house in Kahului. The New Year’s tradition started in Donald Terada’s home in Wailuku in 1985 before moving to the Fujita home in Kahului. After the death of Carolyn Fujita in 2016, the Fujita family decided this would be the final year it would host the mochi-pounding event. ASA ELLISON photo

Dean Tokishi (left) and Dave Meyer take turns pounding cooked rice into mochi while Derek Fujita stands ready to fold the mochi in between whacks Dec. 16 at Tom Fujita’s house in Kahului. The New Year’s tradition started in Donald Terada’s home in Wailuku in 1985 before moving to the Fujita home in Kahului. After the death of Carolyn Fujita in 2016, the Fujita family decided this would be the final year it would host the mochi-pounding event. ASA ELLISON photo

Each family can bring up to 5 pounds of rice. The Lahainaluna classmates pound the first “ceremonial” batch that is shared with the whole group, then the work begins. Fujita said that he has two of everything: two steamers, two usu (mortar) and two long tables for rolling out fresh mochi. The Fujitas keep a list of who wants azuki bean, peanut butter and plain mochi. Orders are bagged and packed into wooden boxes handmade by Fujita.

“When we started, I don’t know if we really thought about tradition,” Fujita said. “We just thought about getting together. . . . Good for the younger people to see. When we were young our families used to do it.”

This year, steaming started at around 5:30 a.m. Pounding began at 6:30 a.m. and finished just before noon. The group worked through 185 pounds of rice, slightly less than the normal 200-plus pounds.

Absent but not forgotten during the backyard celebration was Carolyn Fujita, who could be found in the kitchen every year carrying out dish after dish.

Carolyn Fujita was heavily involved in the preparation and spent the night before the event washing the rice every few hours. She spent all year crocheting dishwashing “scrubbies” to go along with rice paddles and a seasoning mixture to hand out as goodies with the mochi, daughter Lyndra Okamoto said.

Lyndra Okamoto and her father, Tom Fujita, watch as mochi is pounded and shaped last month. ASA ELLISON photo

Lyndra Okamoto and her father, Tom Fujita, watch as mochi is pounded and shaped last month. ASA ELLISON photo

In 2016, on the day after Thanksgiving, Carolyn Fujita suffered a massive stroke and was taken to Maui Memorial Medical Center. On Nov. 28, 2016, her family made the difficult decision to take her off of life support. She was 72.

The family still pounded mochi in 2016.

“She had everything prepared for us just before she passed, so it wasn’t as difficult to get everything together for mochitsuki,” Okamoto said.

But this year it was harder, with Tom Fujita having to “do the job of two,” Okamoto said. Friends and family pitched in, but things just weren’t the same without Carolyn Fujita around to “make it go smoothly.”

Fujita said that his wife was “like me: quiet, shy,” but always bustling about behind the scenes. A retired Kahului Elementary School 2nd-grade teacher, Carolyn Fujita was always cooking something for somebody. She brought meals to neighbors in care homes around New Year’s and tried to visit them every week. She remembered to do things like taking flowers to the cemetery on the anniversary of a relative’s death.

“She always put others in front of herself,” Okamoto said. “She always took care of all the neighbors, and she made sure all the grandkids are fed. Everything she did was for others.”

The annual mochi pounding was something she helped keep alive. This year, during the final event, family members and friends wore T-shirts saying “mochi memories” and placed a lei-framed photo of Carolyn Fujita on a table next to a plate of mochi.

Members of the Fujita family said they haven’t decided how they’re going to celebrate the next New Year’s. They might just have a small family gathering. Okamoto said she’s glad her four children, now ranging from ages 14 to 24, were able to experience mochitsuki. Her brother also came from Las Vegas and her sister from Austin, Texas, every year.

“My mom, she was one of the main reasons, and my dad, that kept the tradition going,” Okamoto said. “That’s what made it good mochi memories. . . . We were really grateful to have all these years.”

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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