Long before Japanese Americans were taken from Bainbridge Island and interned during World War II, they celebrated the new year by making a sweet rice called mochi, a food believed to bring strength and give good luck, good health and long life.
What was once a private social event — where they would gather at a farm to steam rice on a wood-burning fire, then pound the cooked product smooth with wooden mallets to make the rice treat so good that it’s placed at Buddhist altars — is now one of Bainbridge Island’s biggest events.
In the first hour of the event on Sunday, attendance had already reached 1,100, said Clarence Moriwaki, one of the organizers. The event, open to the public for the past 25 years, is now one of the biggest in the United States, he said.
“All cultures seem to have some kind of new year’s celebration involving food and fire,’’ Moriwaki said. Sunday “is likely to be the best attended’’ of any “mochi tsuki” so far.
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“That’s good considering 72 years ago (Feb. 19, 1942) President (Franklin) Roosevelt signed an executive order to send away the Japanese Americans to internment camps,” he said. “If you look around, 75 percent of the people here are not people of color.’’
As the rice steamed on trays in wood containers and smoke from the fires drifted in the frigid morning air, families gathered. Nearby, the final sticky product was placed into a stone bowl or “usu” and men with wooden mallets pounded it until it was a smooth dough.
For 30 years, Mike Okano, who grew up on Bainbridge, has pounded sweet rice at mochi tsukis.
“The rice is naturally sweet. Pounding it mashes the grains to make it smooth,’’ he said.
Then the women take it and make small round balls from it, filling some with bean curd.
The demand outstripped the supply this year, and even though a lot of the mochi sold at the festival is made by machine, potential customers were going without until the machine could catch up, said Lilly Kodama, a veteran of many events.
Mari and Tim Sorey, from Ellensburg, brought their young daughters.
“They are half Japanese, and I want to expose them to Japanese culture,’’ Mari Sorey said.
For a long time the event has been held at Islandwood School, where it begins with drumming in the traditional style with large drums usually made from a single log and often built from elm, camphor or horse chestnut.
A dragon appeared, dancing and gobbling money fed to it by anyone wishing to ensure luck for the coming year.
Fumiko Hayashida, 102, was one of them. She grew up on Bainbridge Island, was interned and now returns to see friends and enjoy an almost celebrity status among the mochi tsuki sponsors, the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community.
Elias Ross was with his wife, Hitomi, and two children.
“Almost every year we go to some event for making mochi,’’ he said. “She grew up in Japan.’’
“I really miss it,’’ his wife said, adding that it was the epitome of being family. “Everyone came to the house and everyone was making mochi.’’
Nancy Bartley: email@example.com or 206-464-8522