Looking to Hire a Mochi Maker! (Not a Job for Softies!)

The performance of artisanal work has become integral to the marketing of hand-made food products. But artisanal labor is not all show. Workers at a popular neighborhood sweet shop in Nishi-Ogi tell us how they learned their trade and how taxing the work can be. Read more to learn how they produce their popular (and delicious) strawberry daifuku (ichigo daifuku, or fresh strawberry and sweet bean paste rice cakes).

Everyone in the neighborhood knows the mochi (sticky rice cake) shop on the southern shopping street in Nishi-Ogi. The shop, called Echigo Tsuruya, frequently appears on the popular “urban stroll” television programs, and on the weekends there are lines of customers with site-seeing maps in their hands waiting out front. It has become one of the more popular tourist stops in the town. 

Most of those lining up are waiting for the shop’s famous strawberry daifuku - a thin pliable layer of rice cake enveloping a fresh strawberry embedded in red bean paste. However, the real eye-catching attraction of the shop is the dexterous mochi artisan hard at work in the glass-fronted shop. The person you are likely to see is daifuku maker, Kato, who forms 500 to 800 of these rice cakes everyday. With a serious demeanor and quick thin fingers, Kato has been working here for 15 years. He started out his work life as a programmer, but then he decided to escape from the salaryman life. “My parents had run a soba shop and other relatives had been in the business of making soba or Japanese sweets. My parents and my little brother were making soba, so I thought of doing Japanese sweets, and I ended up finding this place.”

The mochi artisan Kato is tough on himself and passionate about Japanese sweets. He starts work at 6:30 a.m. and doesn’t finish until the evening. There is not much time for rest. “Around four in the afternoon all the mochi are sold out, but then there is cleaning and the prep for the next day, the black beans, the chestnuts, and everything else. Monday is a day of rest, but there is still a lot to do on that day.”

The real boss of the shop is Urano-san, but because of an illness he is not working recently. According to the assistant shop manager Maruyama-san, Urano learned the art of making mochi 35 years ago in the food floor of a department store. Originally from Niigata, he had been working with traditional seaweed and seafood products in a department store. He observed the practice of making ramen noodles behind a glass window, and thought this also could be a way of marketing mochi. He figured that customers would be attracted by the sight of mochi being made. They can also observe the hygienic conditions, and this creates trust. “More than being first attracted to the idea of mochi, he was attracted to the idea of doing a business in which customers could watch the work in front of them,” said Maruyama.

After learning the trade through observation in a department store, Urano began looking for a place to open his own store featuring this display of his own artisanal labor. He chose Nishi-Ogi, according to Maruyama, because there are many “fat tonged” gourmets in Suginami. “If you make something good here, people will buy it. And it turned out to be that way.”

After 12 years at another location north of the station, he has been at the current one for 15 years. The most popular products are ichigo daifuku (soft rice cakes with bean paste and a fresh strawberry), sakura mochi (bean paste rice cakes wrapped in cherry leaf), doumyouji (a rounded Kansai style of sakura mochi), dorayaki (a bean paste filled pancake sandwich), and mitarashi dango (molasses drenched rice balls on wooden skewers). According to Maruyama there are no plans to expand the small shop, but they are considering selling value-added products in a separate internet shop. 

Maruyama explained the manufacturing process and meanings of mochi to us. The first ingredient is glutinous rice. There are over 20 types, and the shop uses the kogane mochi variety from Niigata. Because the name of this rice sounds like the Japanese words for “having a bit of money” they also have named their main product “good luck rice cakes” (kaiun daifuku). Mochi are a good luck symbol, he explained, and are eaten at the New Year and at fairs. Their round shape symbolizes the completeness of the family circle.

The basics of mochi making are the same everywhere, Maruyama said, but the devil is in the details. "For example, when washing the rice, we want to make sure the bran is washed away quickly because rice absorbs the bitter tastes of the bran. Also because glutinous rice breaks quickly, we only wash it three times. If it breaks up, it looses its flavor when steaming. So we wash it twice quickly and rinse it in a lot of cold water. At this time of year the water from the pipes is really cold and your hands chap, but you cannot use warm water because the rice expands, breaks, and you loose the flavor when cooking." After washing, the rice is soaked six hours in cold water to allow it to slowly expand. Then it is washed again before cooking.

Because the environment is different everywhere, you can only learn the right technique from trial and error. According to Kato, “Depending on the seasons, on the rice, the length of time you steam the rice changes every day. There are warm days and cold days. For example when it is warm, the mochi becomes soft. But you can control this by adjusting the steaming time or the amount of water you use. Because freshly steamed rice is the stiffest, you can adjust the stiffness by blending rice that was steamed in the morning with rice steamed in the afternoon. That way you can have the same quality of product all day. To be able to make the same quality product under all conditions is the mark of a professional. You have to make daily adjustments.”

The rice is steamed for several hours, and mixed several times to insure it is thoroughly cooked. Then it is pounded using an electric pounder in the store. Then it is ready to be shaped into mochi

The other main ingredient is the azuki bean. The beans are cooked for two hours, allowed to rest to even out flavors, then cooked again. During the second cooking, the sweetness is measured with a refractometer. The beans are then allowed to cool over night. In the area around Kyoto, finely strained bean paste (koshi an) is the norm. Customers in the region around Tokyo, prefer the more loosely strained bean paste (tsubo an). But because there are customers who do not like the texture of the skins of the beans, Echigo Tsuruya still makes some products with koshi an.

Echigo Tsuruya uses the dainagon beans from the Kyoto area. "The shop uses expensive ingredients and sells at a reasonable price, but we don’t casually raise prices," Maruyama said. “Even though people are waiting in line, we are working with a low profit margin. More than profit we are hoping to define mochi as a type of popular culture. And we want to spread this as a type of popular culture.”

There are four regular members on the team. There is a clear division of labor. Kato is the primary mochi artisan. The others help with preparations, washing the rice, grinding, and making sakura mochi and mitarashi dango. The daifuku are made by Kato alone. Although Kato is modest about this task, Maruyama explained, that it is difficult to consistently form the pliable skin of the daifuku while keeping its perfectly rounded shape. He learned this all from Urano, and is hoping to train someone younger to lessen his own heavy work load. 

“It is easy to make one if you take your time,” Maruyama said, “but to make several a minute as a business is difficult. If you think of someone’s monthly salary as 200,000 yen, then you can figure that you have to sell 500 to 800 daifuku a day while keeping up the quality.”

Now they are looking for another artisan. No experience is necessary. “There are almost no mochi artisans in Japan now, so there is no point in looking for someone with experience,” Maruyama said. “In the past they existed, but almost no one is making a living as a mochi maker today. There are no young people learning the trade. Most of them are over 50 and working here would be difficult in terms of physical strength. So we are looking for a young person to train.”

Calling on young people willing to dedicate themselves to preserving the art of hand-made mochi! (Farrer, Feb. 26, 2016, March 14, 2017.)

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