It’s been two decades of smashing good times

Ooh, steamy. The 20th annual Mochi Tsuki Festival runs 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday at IslandWood.  -
Ooh, steamy. The 20th annual Mochi Tsuki Festival runs 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday at IslandWood.
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The Mochi Tsuki festival has been rescheduled. It will run 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Jan. 18

Mashing rice can be a sticky business. On Bainbridge, it’s become a festival.

The Mochi Tsuki Festival, co-sponsored by the Bainbridge Island Japanese-American Community and IslandWood, is one of the longest-running and ever-expanding island cultural events.

“It’s been 20 years,” said islander Clarence Moriwaki. “We’ve been going on Bainbridge for a long time; it is one of the longer running public events on the island.”

The festival revolves around mochi, the traditional Japanese food that is commonly sold and eaten during the celebration of the New Year.

Traditionally, one person uses a wooden mallet to rhythmically pound steamed, polished, glutinous rice into a sticky paste. Another worker will continually turn the rice between pounds to ensure a consummate consistency.

Families then gather to shape the mochi paste into balls and roll them with sweet flour or sugar, or top them with fruit or bean paste.

The tradition has been shared with fellow islanders for two decades, and it’s caught on.

“Well, it started with humble beginnings at Island Center,” said island resident and Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community president Frank Kitamoto. “And it’s gotten bigger and bigger each year.”

After expanding beyond the confines of Island Center Hall, the festival was celebrated at the Filipino Community Center before moving to its current location at IslandWood.

Annually, the event often brings together more than 600 islanders. One year, Mochi Tsuki was featured in Sunset magazine, attracting over 1,000 mochi enthusiasts.

Before the event became a community affair, local Japanese-American families would gather and make mochi on their own to celebrate the new year in traditional Japanese fashion.

“It’s something that has been going on for more than a millennium,” Moriwaki said. “It’s usually a New Year’s occasion, to end the year and reflect, and to bring health and prosperity in the next year. It’s really a chance to bring families together.”

But the festival is not only about well-wishing and smothering one’s face in rice-based goodies.

Kokon Taiko drummers from Seattle will be performing again this year. The adrenaline-inducing beats performed on the large traditional percussion instruments are an annual favorite.

Because of the popularity of the performance, past showcases have been packed beyond capacity at IslandWood. This year, organizers will have to adhere to strict fire-code regulations. Although the event is still free, drummers will perform during three ticketed shows so there is no overcrowding.

Also showcased will be some of the most recent designs for the planned Japanese-American Memorial at Eagledale.

“We’ll have models of the memorial and photos of the facilities that are there now, and drawings of what the eventual interpretive center will look like,” Moriwaki said.

Mary Woodward will be at the event to sign her book, “In Defense of Our Neighbors,” and IslandWood staff will give tours of the facilities, with families permitted to hike the preserve’s trail system.

“Otherwise, it is grinding rice by hand in a stone mortar and cutting it up to make little cakes, and celebrating health and prosperity and the coming of the New Year,” Kitamoto said.

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