Monday, January 14, 2008

Shin Koenji Charity Mochi Event

Men gamely pound rice into mochi inside a wooden barrel. Pounding rice into mochi takes an immense amount of strength, stamina and patience. At least it probably kept those fellows warm!

Mochi is most often associated with New Year's holidays though Japanese people eat it as part of other dishes (and as is) throughout the year. It's also famous for being easy to choke on because it's hard to chew when served in relatively big pieces. There is a sort of "mochi death watch" as we start each new year and the news reports on the number of old folks who met an untimely demise during their holiday celebration. Mochi can't be reliably dislodged with the Heimlich maneuver so it's recommended that one use a vacuum cleaner to suck it out of the afflicted person's windpipe in the unlikely event of a choking. For western folks, you might want to keep this in mind if you spoon peanut butter directly from a jar (as opposed to on a cracker or whatever) into your mouth as it is another substance that can't be forced out with a Heimlich attempt.

A tent set up in Koenji as part of the charity mochi gathering. It says something to the effect of "spring charity mochi meeting", even though it's January. We may be reading the characters wrong as there are multiple readings of the same characters.

Despite the danger involved in consuming mochi, it is a favorite food among the Japanese. It's not like the Japanese are strangers to eating food that can kill you with fugu being an infrequently consumed delicacy. They're willing to risk their lives while enjoying their cuisine so you've got to give them credit for that.

Kids watch from behind a pylon. The set-up didn't look incredibly sanitary despite the distance between the kids (and all kids are prone to uncovered open mouth coughing in my experience) and the barrel.

The gathering in Koenji was held on the a national holiday, adulthood day. I'm guessing they chose this day intentionally to increase the chances that families could come around and enjoy some freshly made mochi.

Some older ladies prepare topping for the mochi and serve it.

The mochi was served with sweetened red bean paste. Mochi doesn't have much of a taste and is eaten as much for texture as anything else. There are actually several popular dishes in Japan which are served for texture rather than taste in addition to mochi. Tofu, konyaku, and a kind of gelatin noodle (which I've forgotten the name of) are other dishes which fall into this category that get most of their flavor from sauces, condiments, or the foods they are served with.

Rice is cooked in restaurant-size pots to keep the mochi ingredients flowing.

Fresh mochi is supposed to be tastier than the sort you buy pre-made in stores though my husband didn't sample the food on offer at this charity event. One of my students told me that the mochi used as decorations during New Years (kagami mochi) and sold in plastic molds is specially prepared to keep it from spoiling. Another of my students told me that her family buys a display made of fresh mochi but within 3 days, the mochi disks start to crack and then mold forms in them. She told me her family has to cut out the moldy parts before eating it.

Friendly, happy gentlemen ladle out cups of hot sake to warm visitors on a day which was around 40 degrees F./4 degrees C.

The charity event appeared to be to raise money for victims of the Niigata earthquake in July 2007 and it was sponsored by the Koenji merchants who are situated along the area's major shopping street which is called "Pal". Donations were being put into a clear box next to a barrel that sake was served from. At the time this picture was taken, the amount of donations looked relatively anemic.

A boy collects cash for the mochi as well as gives out chopsticks for eating it.

However, looking only at one of the crystal donation box by the sake barrel was a bit misleading as people were paying kids for the mochi at a separate box. It's rather nice to see kids being involved in the event and impressive that such young people were trusted to handle the money.

Musicians take a break from their vigorous taiko drumming performance.

Though it was quite cold, the event was attended by a lot of people and included music from folks playing traditional Japanese instruments and taiko drumming. The area was quite noisy and had a festive atmosphere.

These sorts of smallish community festivals go on all over Japan at various times of year and seem a quaint way to bring folks together and bond over their shared culture. While I don't always take an interest in them or attend them (because I've been here so long), I think they're the sorts of things which are good to keep an eye out for when you're visiting as a tourist or are a relative newbie to Japan.


Lulu said...

Oh wow, I could of walked there from my house but I didn`t even know it was on!!!

It seems like a lovely day out!

Shari said...

Hi, Lulu, and many thanks for taking the time to comment and allow me to find your blog. I'm giving it a read now and have added you to the links.

By the way, your boyfriend has the kind of name my former boss used to love. He always enjoyed saying any name with a "pei" on the end (Shumpei, Junpei, Ippei, etc.). Some Japanese words are rather fun to say. ;-)

tornados28 said...

One of the things I like a bout Japan are the many festivals or matsuri. It does seem a good way to bring the community together and create a bond.

Although alot of Japanese traditions may not have as much meaning to many Japanese people today such as the matsuri, I think it is still an important part of their culture.

terrance said...

wow, i was in nagoya when that earthquake hit. I didn't think it was too big at the time, till i saw the damage on tv the following day.

always fun to hear about the different cultural experiences in japan. thanks.

Shari said...

tornados28: I agree. I think it also helps reduce the chance that city folk will all become a bunch of strangers living in the same place.

terrance: Even though I've experienced quite a few smallish quakes, they always still scare me!

Thanks to both of you for taking the time to comment. :-)

wintersweet said...

Good call--the characters say "new spring," but it's a reference to the new year. It's a holdover from when the new year was celebrated on the Chinese lunar calendar, in early spring. (A lot of Japanese new year symbols and phrases seem seasonally incongruous because of that!)

Great action shots!

Shari said...

Wintersweet: Thanks for the information and for taking the time to read and comment. It's very interesting to know more and to keep what you say about the incongruity between symbols and seasons in mind when looking at other kanji.

Lulu said...

Hahaha, it is funny you should say that. When shumpei joined his company 4 years ago he was initiated with 25 odd people and several of them had -pei names...must have been popular around the time he was born. There is a Jyunpei, another Shumpei, and a kampei!

lina said...

it looks fun. A friend of my mine posted some photos about the mochi pounding event held at her son's youchien and it looked very interesting. Wish I was there.

Wally Wood said...

Shari: Would it be possible to translate the name of the temple as "New Park Temple"? And is it near/in a park? I'm only sorry I cannot participate.

Shari said...

Lina: It was pretty cold, but there were scads of people about, though not everyone went to the event. My husband took the pictures and there were some of the "Pal" shopping street and it was chocked full of shoppers. These events are interesting but for those of us prone to being overwhelmed by jostling and noise, it's a bit hard sometimes.

Wally: I think Wintersweet got it right. The area is just an adjunct of a street and not part of a park (in fact, there are no parks in the immediate area to speak of). One of the things which makes reading Japanese so hard is that the characters have their meanings then combine to have different meanings - sometimes multiple different ones. It's something my students complain about all the time and why some say that they can't even read news in Japanese and understand it because of this issue.

Many thanks to both of you for the comments!