Amami Oshima’s Traditional Mochitsuki: Preserving Community and Culture

Happy New Year! In Amami Oshima, there are two New Year celebrations. Similar to East Asian and Southeast Asian countries, the lunar calendar is deeply rooted among the people. In 2024, the lunar New Year fell on February 10th. I was invited by friends from a village and participated in mochitsuki (mochi pounding).

Kneading freshly cooked mochi rice.

I felt a sense of nostalgia as I recently engaged in the traditional practice of mochitsuki, pounding rice to make mochi, back in my hometown. People use a stone mortar in Amami Oshima Island, unlike the wooden ones commonly used on the mainland. Additionally, pestles are larger than those found on the mainland.

The mortar and pestle used in mochitsuki on Amami Oshima.
The mortar is made of Setta stone, a distinctive type of stone from the Kasari area.
The site of Setta stone quarry.
The site of Setta stone quarry. The stone quarry is currently inactive.

Mochitsuki requires physical strength, as the mochi won’t achieve the desired stickiness unless the pestle is swung with force. After energetically pounding 20 to 30 times, you find yourself catching your breath. To make one mochi, three to four people take turns pounding. It was a good workout!

The vigorous pounding of mochi with a pestle.

We repeated this process four times, each time working with 2.5 kilograms of rice. Given the physical demands, it’s an event that requires the collective effort of several adults.

The freshly pounded mochi was then shaped into rounds, with some filled with strawberries or sweet bean paste, and we enjoyed several on the spot. The taste of freshly made mochi was so delicious.

The finished mochi.

One notable aspect of mochitsuki is the sense of community. People from the neighborhood come together to pound mochi, and then people from children to the elderly, and even the family dog, come together and ramble on around the table of food. It’s a wonderful experience.

While mochitsuki used to be a widespread tradition throughout Japan several decades ago, like many cultural practices, it has significantly diminished in recent times. Factors such as machinery replacing manual labor and the declining interest of the younger generation in culture have contributed to this decline.

The potential loss of this culture is regrettable. However, experiences like the one I had, where children actively participate, hold the key to preserving these traditions for the future. It is incumbent upon us, as adults, to continue these practices until old age and pass them on to the next generation.

Being able to share the deliciousness of freshly pounded mochi, reminiscent of my childhood, with today’s children is truly a wonderful thing. I hope to pass down this taste to future generations for decades to come.