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.
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.
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.
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.
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.