As the cold rain came down, Kazuma Oshita called out commands in Japanese as he held a large wooden mallet over a giant mortar steaming with a payload of sticky rice, ready to strike home.
Two pots of sweet rice — one white, the other brown — set up at his side had steamed for more than a day. With his partner, Oshita brought down their twin hammers in a rhythm, pounding the rice into a sticky, paste-like dough called “mochi.”
Inside Gomen-Kudasai, the New Paltz-based Japanese restaurant that Oshita co-owns with his wife and business partner Youko Yamamoto, Yamamoto explained the process and its significance.
“Mochitsuki” is the ancient Japanese New Year’s ritual dedicated to celebrating the harvest and wishing for a prosperous year. The process of pounding out mochi — by hammer — the hard way hails back to the distant past.
“This has been going on since the sixth century, when we adopted rice-making from China,” Yamamoto said. Prior to that rapid agricultural revolution, the ancient Japanese had been nomadic.
“That was the beginning of Japanese civilization,” she said. “Mochi is really the symbol of our life and the gift from God.”
Gomen-Kudasai has held a special Mochitsuki celebration for six years now, including this New Year’s season. Diners at the restaurant and the crowd of nearly 30 that gathered, all got to try sweet mochi for free. The couple sees the tradition as special thank-you to their customers and the community.
Yamamoto — who has made it her mission to be Japan’s unofficial cultural ambassador to New Paltz — is also behind the yearly Bon-Odori Festival of dance.
Mochi itself, fresh and warm from the mortar, has a sweet, almost ice cream-like flavor. It sticks to the bowl as one tries to eat it, and it can be topped with a number of condiments.
Outside with the crowd, taiko drummer Stuart Paton wowed his audience with his display of the traditional Japanese percussion style. His ritualized drum beat was an invocation of the dragon spirit.
Paton, an American who grew up in Tokyo until age 18, first began studying taiko under a grandmaster in 1984. He went on to found the Burlington Taiko Group in Vermont. The group has ties to New Paltz, however, because Burlington Taiko plays at the local Bon-Odori Festival each year. They’ve also done performances at SUNY New Paltz.
Yamamoto noted that Mochitsuki hammers and mortar were special creations — made by Oshita, who is a sculptor. “These are all handmade tools. We didn’t bring them with us from Japan,” she said.