Just after 6 a.m. on a chilly December morning in Wahiawā, a rural community in the middle of O‘ahu that was once the pineapple capital of the world, a few older men dressed in short-sleeved happi coats and hachimaki (Japanese headbands) steam sweet mochi rice in bamboo boxes over propane stoves in a backyard. Others set up the tables in the garage. In a few hours, dozens of members of the local Uesugi family will gather to shape the cooked and pounded rice, or mochi, into balls of various sizes, filling them with tsubushian (azuki bean paste), chocolate-hazelnut spread, and even cookie butter.
Making mochi, by hand and at home, is a New Year’s tradition that goes back generations in Hawai‘i, though very few families still prepare mochi this way. Older folks in the Uesugi family remember pounding hot glutinous rice using kine (wooden mallets) in an old stone usu (large mortar), but the usu has long been missing. Today, young boys pound the freshly steamed rice with kine as it enters a stainless-steel machine that churns and massages it until it’s a soft and pliable paste. When this process is complete, the rest of the family takes the mochi and shapes it into smooth discs. These will be used as offerings or put into ozoni, a soup full of ingredients that have significance in Japanese culture like konbu (seaweed) for long life and mochi for good fortune and strength.
“My family has been doing this for as long as I can remember,” says Shawn Uesugi Nakamoto. Her two sons have pounded mochi every new year since they were teenagers. “It’s just always been our family tradition that nobody wants to let go of. It’s a fun time for our kids. We all really look forward to it.”
In Hawai‘i, mochi is as much a part of New Year’s celebrations as fireworks and champagne toasts. The food comes from Japan, where it has been made for at least 13 centuries. Once eaten exclusively by emperors and nobles, mochi came to be used in religious offerings at Shinto rituals and, during the Japanese New Year season, took on the symbol of long life and wellbeing.
Today, no matter the time of year, mochi is dropped in soups, dusted in kinako (soybean flour), grilled and dressed in a sugary shoyu sauce, or stuffed with a variety of fillings ranging from lima bean paste to peanut butter to whole strawberries. In Hawai‘i, mochi is also consumed year-round, found on shelves in convenience stores, and atop bowls of shave ice.
But the mochi made for New Year’s celebrations is special: it is always left white, the color of the rice, and shaped into discs. Often, two large ones are stacked and then topped with a mikan (Japanese orange) with its leaf attached. This is kagami mochi (mirror mochi), an offering to the gods, which is placed on the family altar or somewhere in the home to bring good fortune in the coming year.
Traditional daifuku mochi (mochi stuffed with sweet filling), which is too difficult for most people to make at home the way the Uesugis do, is what people clamor for at the 97-year-old Nisshodo Candy Store housed in an unassuming warehouse in Kalihi. Each year, it churns out thousands of pieces of fresh mochi for New Year’s alone, going through more than 500 pounds of mochi rice during the holiday. At the peak of the season, its workers clock in at 5 a.m. to try to meet everyone’s needs. Even this is sometimes not enough. “The line goes out the door and there’s a lot of complaining,” says Mike Hirao, 68, a retired banker and third-generation owner of the family-run store. “But cannot help.”
Though the shop is busiest on the days leading up to New Year’s, its best-selling mochi is chichi dango, a soft, sweet confection made fresh daily onsite. The shop sells around 40,000 pieces of the pink and white mochi—made from scratch and mostly by hand—every week. The shop is also one of the few on O‘ahu that makes the specialty hishi mochi, a three-layer, diamond-shaped mochi dessert, for Girl’s Day, or Hinamatsuri, in March.
Still, the busiest holiday for Nisshodo Candy Store is New Year’s. Hirao understands the sentiment. He grew up placing mochi on family altars and eating it in soup on New Year’s Day. Though he doesn’t have an altar in his own home, he still honors the custom, placing the kagami mochi on the stove in his kitchen. “This is how we grew up, it’s what we do,” he says. “And to this day, we still do that. It’s tradition.”
Nisshodo Candy Store nears its 100th year of serving mochi to the Hawaiʻi community.
Nisshodo sells around 40,000 pieces of its best-selling chichi dango every week.
Nisshodo Candy Store located in an unassuming warehouse in Kalihi, Oahu.
During the holiday season, Nisshodo goes through more than 500 pounds of mochi rice.
Mochi varies in flavor, texture, topping, and filling.
Once eaten solely by Japanese emperors and nobles, mochi is now often enjoyed by the masses as a casual snack.
Hand-pounding mochi is a New Year’s custom in Hawaiʻi with origins in Japan. Kagami mochi, a two-tiered variety, is traditionally set out in the home as an offering to the gods in exchange for good fortune in the coming year.