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Home » #FindingAsia » #FindingAsia: Mochitsuki at the Midwest Buddhist Temple, Chicago
#FindingAsia: Mochitsuki at the Midwest Buddhist Temple, Chicago

#FindingAsia: Mochitsuki at the Midwest Buddhist Temple, Chicago

Mochi (餅), which is a sweet sticky rice cake, has been eaten in Japan since ancient times for special celebrations and festivals.

The practice of hand-pounding mochi, known as mochitsuki (餅つき), is now rare even in Japan as most people would rather buy machine-made mochi sold at stores instead of making their own.

Yet still, whether store-bought or home-made, the tradition of eating mochi on New Year’s remains deep rooted in their culture.

Mochi Tsuki 2014

Since it is a bit of a dying art, you can imagine my excitement when I learned that the Midwest Buddhist Temple holds their own traditional mochitsuki festival each December right here in Chicago.

I never even got to experience this when I lived in Japan, so of course I went out and spent the day learning all about this traditional practice!

To make mochi by hand is a considerable amount of work. First, sweet rice is soaked in water overnight. It’s then steamed and placed in an usu (碓; a large, stone mortar) where it gets pounded over and over with kine (杵), or wooden mallets.

Mochi Tsuki 2014Mochi Tsuki 2014

The main characteristic of mochi, its stickiness, comes from constantly turning the mochi while it’s being pound in order to pound all sides equally.

A kaeshi-te is the person appointed with the dangerous task of turning over and pulling the mochi while it’s being pounded by the group of tsuki-te. The kaeshi-te continually wets his hands in order to avoid sticking to the mochi– which would in turn result in getting his hand smashed by the mallet. He is also the one guiding the tsuki-te and telling them where the need to hit next.

It’s very much an art skill. 

Mochi Tsuki 2014
Mochi Tsuki 2014

The rice has to be pounded with considerable force in order to make the mochi smooth and consistent. This means the synchronization between the tsuki-te is very important and you’ll often hear them grunting or yelling out in order to keep synchronized, kind of like they do when making sake.

Once the mochi is completely soft and homogenous, it is then formed into various shaped and sized cakes. It can be enjoyed plain, with different sauces or with sweet fillings inside like red bean.

Mochi Tsuki 2014
Mochi Tsuki 2014

And New Year tradition doesn’t just stop at eating mochi. A special variation, called kagami-mochi (鏡餅; mirror mochi) is typically placed on the family alter during the New Year as well as an offering for Shinto deities. This auspicious gesture signifies hope for a happy year ahead and good fortune!

Now that’s one delicious Japanese cultural tradition that I can get behind! Yum!

Mochi Tsuki 2014
Mochi Tsuki 2014

When to visit: December
Where to visit: 435 West Menomonee Street, Chicago, IL 60614

How to visit: El stop Sedgwick on the Brown Line

Have you experienced Asian culture outside of Asia? Tell me about it in the comments below or share your own photo on social media using the hashtag #FindingAsia!

8 comments

  1. I am a member of MBT and we are currently redeveloping MBT’s website – to be launched later this month. Would you allow us to publish one of your photos (the kine) on our new website – on our home page we are displaying various images of temple activities and your photo would be a great addition. You can reach me at the email address provided. I appreciate your consideration – great photos and very nice blog.

  2. I had mochi for the first time a couple of months back and I loved it. It wasn’t in Japan (unfortunately) but it was at a Japanese Peruvian fusion restaurant in Barcelona. So good! I can’t believe how much work goes into making them – wow.
    Cyra | Gastronomic Nomad recently posted…My Never-Ending Quest for the Perfect Travel PackMy Profile

  3. I didn’t realize how much of an effort or art is involved in making mochi. It makes me appreciate this treat so much more. How neat that you were able to witness this here in the US. What a great experience! Now, I need to look for a festival like this here in Southern California. Thanks for the virtual tour!

    • It made me appreciate it as well, even though the store ones are mostly made by machine nowadays ;)
      I’m sure there are festivals like this in Cali! Not sure about SoCal, but certainly around LA I’d imagine there’d be some!

  4. Beth, That’s a lotta mochi…How much fun!
    Corinne recently posted…Tacoma Street Art!My Profile

  5. I made some in Japan and it was HARD WORK!!
    I love your explanation there – so many new words for me.
    Charlotte Steggz recently posted…Notes on Being Back in FrankfurtMy Profile