Pounding mochi with usu and kine is a tradition that only a few families in Hawaii still do at home. But these Japanese rice cakes are still a part of New Year’s celebrations as fireworks.

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The story behind Hawaii's mochi-pounding tradition

For many Island families, mochi, whether hand-pounded or store-bought, signifies the start of the New Year.

Ten years ago, I lived in a cul-de-sac in Hawaii Kai in East Honolulu that, every New Year’s, turned into a neighborhood mochi factory.

The Mahoe family lived directly across the street and had been pounding mochi (Japanese rice cake) in their garage for generations. About 200 people would gather there on Jan. 1, starting at dawn, to cook the sweet glutinous rice, then pound the dough in an old stone usu (large mortar) with kine (wooden mallets).

It’s been a tradition at the Mahoes—and across the state—for decades, though fewer families do it this way anymore, opting to buy the sweet rice cakes instead.

In Hawaii, mochi is as much a part of New Year’s celebrations as fireworks and Champagne toasts. For at least 13 centuries, the Japanese have made mochi. Once eaten exclusively by emperors and nobles, the sticky rice cakes, symbolic of long life and well-being during the Japanese New Year season, came to be used in religious offerings in Shinto rituals. Mochi is put into soups, dusted in kinako (soybean flour), grilled and dressed in a sugary soy sauce, or stuffed with a variety of fillings, from a sweet red bean paste to whole strawberries.

Today, you can find mochi everywhere—and year-round—in the Islands, from convenience stores to shave ice stands.

But the mochi that’s made for New Year’s celebrations is different. The rice is always white, and always shaped into disks. Kagami mochi (mirror mochi) is an offering to the gods comprised of two mochi cakes stacked on top of each other with a Japanese orange—its leaf still attached—on top. This stack is typically placed on the family altar in Japanese homes or somewhere in the house to bring good fortune in the coming year.

My mother’s family emigrated from Japan more than a century ago, yet I hadn’t grown up with this tradition. Living across the street from the Mahoes was my first experience pounding mochi in a stone usu and shaping the cooked rice into disks and filling them with azuki (red bean) paste or peanut butter. And it’s an experience I’ll never forget.

Try your hand at traditional mochi-pounding at the annual New Year’s ‘Ohana Festival on Sunday, Jan. 13, 2019, at the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i, 2454 S. Beretania St., Honolulu, Oahu. For more information, call (808) 945-7633 or visit jcch.com.