Island hosts 24th annual Mochi Tsuki Celebration

The Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community will be taking in the new year on Jan. 6 with the 24th annual mochi tsuki, or “mochi-making.”

Islanders pound hot rice that will later be hand rolled into rice cakes at last year’s Mochi Tsuki celebration. The cakes are filled with a sweet bean paste called “ahn.”

The Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community will be taking in the new year on Jan. 6 with the 24th annual mochi tsuki, or “mochi-making.”

Pronounced “moe-chee sue-key,” the Mochi Tsuki Celebration on Bainbridge Island is one of the nation’s longest-running public demonstrations of cooking a centuries-old rice treat, a labor intensive activity that involves soaking, steaming and pounding hot rice into soft round cakes often filled with a sweet bean paste called “ahn” (pronounced “on”).

“[Mochi Tsuki] has been going on in Japan for over 1,000 years,” said Clarence Moriwaki of the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community.

“Sweet rice was a little more rare, and the method of cooking and pounding it was a way to be grateful for the bounty of the year before and also to look forward to another year,” he said.

The preparing of mochi is a practice best done with many helping hands. The sweet rice is first steamed in wooden boxes stacked on top of a water basin that sits over an open fire. The steam rises through the boxes and cooks the rice.

The cooked rice is then placed into a stone mortar called an “usu.”

Once the hot rice is poured into the usu, the real fun begins as two or three volunteers use large wooden mallets to rhythmically pound the rice. Between each mallet coming down, a last person stands ready to turn the rice with bare hands as it transforms into a thick dough.

After the pounding of the mochi is done, it then goes through several fast-paced stages of being separated, filled with sweet ahn and hand rolled into round cakes, best eaten warm and with sugar-sweetened soy sauce.

Last year, 1,800 people were estimated to be in attendance at the event.

“People that come are coming from all over the state,” Moriwaki said. “It’s kind of outgrown our community.”

But Moriwaki adds that although last year’s attendance may have been a high water mark, the Mochi Tsuki celebration has become part of the Bainbridge Island calendar.

The event, which is free to everyone, will include three performances by the Seattle taiko drum group Kokon Taiko, a Japanese-American ensemble that combines ancient and contemporary compositions in their performances. Free tickets will be available 20 minutes prior to each performance, but space is limited to 175 seats.

The “Kodomo No Tame Ni – For the Sake of the Children” exhibit will be on display as will the latest models and renderings of the expected Bainbridge Island Japanese-American Exclusion Memorial, “Nidoto Nai Yoni – Let It Not Happen Again.”

The group will be hosting the event at IslandWood from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

The celebration is free to the public but carpooling is encouraged as parking will be limited.

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