The first time I visited Japan was in 2006, when I was 15, and stayed in a town called Nogata-shi in the Fukuoka countryside. Much of the two weeks I spent there is a hazy, distant memory, with all the small details slipping away into the ebb and flow of time. How did we fill up the silences over dinner, my host parents and I, when I spoke no Japanese? What happened each day for breakfast? Who did what and where it why? I kept thinking that I wanted to go back, and to actually be able to hold a proper conversation with them. In some ways, I suppose, that’s why I’m here again after 6 years. To talk. And maybe one day, make mochi with them again.
It was December, and unbeknownst to me then, that was mochi tsuki time. It was a bit of a surreal experience – I remember not having a clue as to what was going on until they handed me a massive mallet and invited me to have a go at pounding the rice. Shivering slightly on that chilly winter morning, I thumped feebly at the mass of steaming rice with three other strapping young lads (men? The details are a blur), trying to keep up with the rhythm they’d established – the four of us standing around a bucket swinging our hammers up and down. Thock-thock-thock-“oh hang on sorry”-thock-thock-thock-thock-“crap”-thock-”shit”. There were some amused looks. Eventually – i.e. very shortly – my arms gave up and I relinquished my mallet to someone else. Some minutes later, right before my eyes, the rice turned into a pile of mochi. Magic, I tell you.
I wish that I had had the foresight to record it all then, since the rest is a blur. All I can recall now is helping my host mother bring plates of mochi, grated daikon and soy sauce out to everyone. The freshly-made mochi was delicious, as I recall, hot, sticky, salty and spicy – though I didn’t really like grated daikon then.
It’s been a long time since I’d thought about it, and probably wouldn’t have recalled it for a long time if n hadn’t invited me to stay over at her place for New Year’s Eve. We spent the first day of 2013 mostly watching various renditions of Gangnam Style, which is actually not a bad way to kickstart the year. Then n’s mother called me to the kitchen to show me two ways they ate mochi in their household: zapped in the microwave, followed with a dusting of sugary kinako powder (mix kinako and sugar to taste, add a pinch of salt); or toasted, rolled in a little soy sauce and wrapped with nori. After I took notes and scoffed two pieces rather happily, n’s mother offered to bequeath to me a pack of n’s aunt’s homemade mochi.
What ensued was a back-and-forth with n’s family in which we attempted to determine how many pieces I would take home. I pressed for as few pieces as possible; they were ready to send me off with two Ziploc bags full. In the end we settled on one bag of 7 pieces, which I was determined to share with my dorm friends. I had this vision in my head of leaving a friendly note on the dorm kitchen table, in which I would ask people to drop by, if they should be so inclined, to try some homemade mochi. We would gather at around 6pm. There would be soy sauce, seaweed and sugary kinako, and everyone would have a grand old time.
Well. In my defense, I made two kinako-dusted pieces for two dorm mates. They seemed to enjoy it a lot, and that made me happy. But then breakfast the following day came, and when I looked up three pieces had somehow disappeared from the bag. I kind of regretted my reservations in negotiating the take-home mochi. I seriously considered finding a suitable wooden bucket, some mallets, and some boys from the rugby team. I thought about maybe giving a piece to another friend, before thinking better of it and proceeding to greedily stuff the rest of the mochi down my gullet. Friends? What friends?
As nice as the kinako mochi was, microwaving the mochi seemed to turn it into a gummy and completely unmanageable mess, only mitigated somewhat by dipping it in a little hot water. Far more delicious was heating it in the toaster oven. Toast for two to three minutes, or until lightly puffed and pillowy; I am no mochi expert, but I’m not sure that it should expand to five times its size. Roll it in good soy sauce – a job best done with your fingers – and then wrap in toasted seaweed. Eat in small bites. Make some inhuman noises while eating, causing your dorm mate to look at you in consternation. Sigh when it’s all over.
One day I’m going to wield that mallet again, and I’ll be damned if I don’t manage to make some fabulous mochi then. I’ll let you know when that happens.