New Year, New Rice

photos: A member of the Vancouver Japanese Gardener’s Association demonstrates how to make mochi at the National Nikkei Museum and Heritage Centre and a plate of handmade mochi with traditional toppings: soya sauce, brown sugar, green onion, grated daikon, ground sesame and nori. Credit: Sharon Mah

Thud. Thunk. Whack. The crowd cheers. A line forms as hungry visitors clamour for a turn with the wooden mallet.

This is Mochitsuki, an ancient rice-pounding ceremony that occurs during shogatsu, the Japanese new year, which falls on January 1. Mochitsuki usually takes place in late December. At Mochitsuki, rice is pounded until it forms a sticky rice cake called mochi.

Rice holds an important place in shogatsu. As the dominant staple of Japanese food culture, rice is a symbol of livelihood, prosperity and an abundant harvest. “There is a strong connection with rice, land, people and spiritual life. It is a source of life,” explains Masa Shiroki, founder of Artisan SakeMaker in Vancouver, BC.

Masa, in particular, knows the importance of rice. Not only is it a key ingredient in his sake, but he recently fulfilled a long-term goal of growing rice locally. He anticipates brewing his first batch of sake with BC-grown rice from this fall’s harvest.

He tells me that sake, mochi and salt, are the three traditional items offered to invite the protection and graces of the spirits during shogatsu and in many opening ceremonies. Madoka Angel, an agriculture student at the University of British Columbia specializing in Japanese food systems, recalls a tradition at the high school she attended in Japan. “We would pour sake, salt, and place mochi at the four corners of the school swimming pool at the start of the swimming season. This brought protection to the pool, so that there wouldn’t be any injuries.”

While mass-produced products are easily available, it is the act of making mochi and sake the slow way that really celebrates the spirit of the new year and brings the community together.

Masa starts with milled rice, local water and Japanese yeast. These three ingredients are fermented for two months and then slowly pressed, resulting in a cloudy rice wine. Part of this wine is directly bottled as Masa’s Osake Junmai Nama Nigori wine. His other two sakes, Osake Junmai Nama Genshu and Osake Junmai Nama, are the clear sake that rises to the top after the rice lees settle out of the Nigori wine. He does not filter the wine or add preservatives. Masa even makes use of the lees, called kasu, that is left after the sake is pressed: he uses it as an ingredient in dressings, marinades, soups and even home skin treatments.

Mochi made at Mochitsuki festivals has an ingredient list similar to that of sake: rice, water and patience. Steamed rice is pounded in large stone mortars by wooden mallets until it forms a soft disc. The disc is then shaped into smaller pieces called mochi, which are shared amongst local families. Mochi can be eaten with simple condiments such as soy sauce, brown sugar, grated daikon and sliced green onion. It is often grilled or placed in a celebratory soup called zoni. To create a new year’s offering called kagami mochi, three cakes are stacked and then eaten fifteen days after the new year. Factory-made mochi is available at some Asian food markets, but have a smoother consistency and loses much of its rustic texture.

Viewed as a symbol of good luck and livelihood, rice cakes are found in the feasts of other Asian countries as well. Chinese tangyuen and niangao, Vietnamese ánh chưng, Korean ddeok gook, and Burmese mont lone yei baw, are all part of Lunar new year feasts, which takes falls on February 14  this year. And if Masa has his way, rice will soon become a part of BC’s own local food culture.

In the meantime, you can find mochi and Masa’s sake in restaurants and markets throughout Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland, including:

Artisan SakeMaker

1339 Railspur Alley, Vancouver


912 Clarke Drive, Vancouver

3624 Shelbourne Street, Victoria

Sakura Japanese Products

1213 Quadra Street, Victoria

Spinnakers Wine Merchants

130-176 Wilson Street, Victoria


823 Denman Street (and other locations), Vancouver

National Nikkei Museum and Heritage Centre‘s Annual Mochitsuki Day (usually in December)

6688 Southoaks Crescent, Burnaby

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