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Mochi event to benefit Okano

A fixture at past cultural festivals, he now recovers from a motorcycle accident.

In Japan, mochi tsuki embodies the coming together of a community to celebrate hope and reflect on the blessings that hard work can bring to bear.

As one person rhythmically pounds rice into a sticky paste using a wooden mallet, or kine, another reaches into the usu (large mortar) between strikes to turn the rice. The end product is shaped into balls and topped with bean paste or fruit, representing the sweetness of good fortune and longevity.

For years, Mike Okano was Bainbridge Island’s “keeper of the usu,” an energetic showman who wielded his kine with gusto, uttering rhythmic grunts as he pounded that the crowd could hear 13 people deep.

“He exemplified the spirit of what the event was about, the community and the New Year,” said Clarence Moriwaki, Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community leader.

This year’s mochi tsuki event, to be held tomorrow at IslandWood, comes with a bittersweet offering for Okano, who is now engaged in a different kind of labor – that of recovery.

While riding his motorcycle on Highway 101 near Brinnon on Sept. 1, Okano was struck by another vehicle and thrown into a ravine.

After being airlifted to Harborview Hospital, Okano lay in a coma for two weeks, having suffered significant head injuries and resulting brain trauma.

Pam Okano, Mike’s sister, began chronicling the island native’s status and recovery on a family website, beginning with his hospital admittance, surgery and coma; through the opening of his eyes and his ability to speak and eat; and on to his eventual and by some accounts astounding release from the hospital Nov. 21.

“He could have easily been a vegetable,” Pam said.

Pam, who grew up on the island with Mike and who now lives in Seattle, has since November spent several days a week taking him to and from physical therapy appointments and the Bremerton adult care facility where he now stays.

She said it came as a complete shock to learn, through the BIJAC newsletter, that the community had decided to donate all the proceeds from this year’s mochi tsuki toward Mike’s medical costs.

“I was just flabbergasted,” she said. “It was a very generous thing for them to do.”

The damage to Mike’s brain has left him with ongoing speech and motor challenges as well as frequent fatigue.

Pam says that on good days, he sounds like his old self; on other days, he struggles to communicate.

Yet she tries to keep his recovery in perspective and remind herself how far he’s come after barely a month out of the hospital. She may even take him to the mochi tsuki tomorrow, although she’s a little worried that the event might exacerbate his tiredness.

“He would get so excited that he wouldn’t be able to sleep,” she said.

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Mochi for Mike

The Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community will host its 19th annual mochi tsuki event from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dec. 30 at IslandWood. The event is free; donations will go toward Mike Okano’s medical costs. Parking limited, carpooling encouraged. See www.islandwood.org.

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