By Hideki Hiramoto / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer ICHINOSEKI, Iwate — Residents of Ichinoseki have worked hard to hand down their mochi rice cake culture over the years, while also making mochi dishes into local specialties.
“A wooden hammer-shaped mallet with a handle is called ippon-kine. This is called senbon-kine [stick-shaped mallet], and it is used on such auspicious occasions as wedding ceremonies,” said Ikuro Sato, 71, vice president of a local association aimed at promoting mochi dishes.
Displaying a senbon-kine mallet during a mochi-related event, Sato lectured about 20 participants, including restaurant owners, on how to use it.
The event, “Mochi Maisuta Kentei” (rice-cake master certificate exam), took place at a restaurant run by sake brewer Sekino-Ichi in central Ichinoseki in February. It was aimed at cultivating the skills for carrying on the local community’s mochi culture. In the event, the participants were supposed to take a mochi-pounding skills test.
After his lecture prior to the test, Sato asked the participants to proudly display their certificates at their stores or homes to “advertise Ichinoseki as the town of mochi.”
Known for its rice production, Ichinoseki grows a large amount of mochigome (glutinous rice). According to the city government and other entities, Ichinoseki’s rice culture dates back to about 400 years ago. The Sendai domain recommended that local residents offer mochi to the gods and Buddha on the first and 15th day of each month, in the hope of seeking peace and calm. This is said to have enabled them to devise more than 300 ways of eating mochi, including wrapping it in zunda (mashed green soybeans) and anko (sweet bean paste).
Mochi-related events in Ichinoseki include a competition in which contestants vie with each other to eat as much mochi as possible — just like wankosoba (soba noodles in broth served continuously until the customer asks to stop). The event is called “Zenkoku Wankomochi Taikai” (national mochi-in-small-bowls eating contest).
Local restaurants serve customers with “mochi-zen,” a tray on which bite-sized pieces of mochi garnished with such toppings as soy-sauce boiled shrimp and zunda paste are placed. In local elementary and junior high schools, on-demand lectures are offered to teach students how to eat mochi-zen.
Notion grows into summit
These mochi-based community development projects started in around 1990. Koko Sato, 76, a senior official at the Sekino-Ichi brewery, was asked by Noriko Saito, 71, an employee of a local agricultural cooperative, to offer advice about poor sales of locally produced mochigome rice named “Koganemochi.”
Sato proposed devising a menu for local dishes mainly using mochi. If such cuisine is developed as a local specialty, she thought, mochigome sales may increase.
She was living in Miyagi Prefecture before getting married in Ichinoseki. After starting her life in Ichinoseki, she was amazed and amused by the local food culture, in which mochi-zen is served at weddings and other ceremonial occasions.
Sato immediately added mochi dishes to the menu at her restaurant. She also created mochi fondue and other original dishes, hoping to attract young customers.
Meanwhile, Saito visited local agricultural families to look for information about mochi-related customs, and she continued to rediscover local traditional dishes.
At first, many local people were negative about their moves, saying that ordinary mochi could never be made into a local specialty. Sato’s original dishes were also dismissed as “unorthodox.”
However, their activities attracted attention from the Iwate prefectural government’s regional development bureau and others, prompting many people to show an interest. This turned the situation around.
In 2010, the prefectural and city governments, agricultural cooperatives, an association of local restaurants and other eating places established the mochi food culture association. This made mochi dishes increasingly well known to other areas as specialties of Ichinoseki.
In 2012, the year after the Great East Japan Earthquake, Wataru Sato, 47, Sato’s son and the Sekino-Ichi brewery president, played a leading role in organizing the Gotochi Mochi Summit, an event in which mochi dishes from Iwate Prefecture and other regions were brought together. During the event, 16 shops stood side by side and many of them sold out their mochi products.
The mochi summit event grew in size year by year, and in 2018, a total of 26 shops were represented, including those from not only the Tohoku region, but also Shizuoka and other prefectures, to sell more than 21,000 mochi products. Today, the mochi summit has grown into a highly popular event.
Local residents believe in using mochi as a vehicle for giving local young people jobs and making “mochi” a globally understood word.
About 60 percent of residents in Ichinoseki and the neighboring town of Hiraizumi have mochi-making equipment in their homes, according to a survey conducted by the city government and others in 2017.
Mochi has a good deal of significance in their eating habits, according to the survey, conducted on 756 residents.
The town of Shiwa in central Iwate Prefecture is also a major mochigome rice-producing area. In the mochi summit, the town exhibited hamukatsu (deep-fried ham) with mochi sandwiched inside. Exhibits also included motchiri purin (pudding mixed with mochigome rice powder)
Meanwhile, Iwate Prefecture’s capital Morioka was ranked 45th among all areas nationwide regarding the amount of money spent on mochi purchases per household, at ¥1,372 annually, according to a family budget survey conducted by the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry from 2016 to 2018, targeting prefectural capitals and government ordinance-designated major cities. The city of Toyama was ranked first at ¥2,931 annually in the survey.
Both Ichinoseki and Morioka are in Iwate Prefecture, but the ministry’s survey pointed to some differences in the food culture in the two cities.
■ Ichinoseki, Iwate Pref.
The city of Ichinoseki, located in the southernmost part of Iwate Prefecture, borders Miyagi and Akita prefectures. It had a population of 115,184 as of April 1, second to the prefectural capital Morioka.
The current Ichinoseki was created in 2005, through a merger of seven municipalities — premerger Ichinoseki, the towns of Hanaizumi, Senmaya, Higashiyama and Daito, as well as the villages of Murone and Kawasaki. In 2011, the town of Fujisawa was incorporated into Ichinoseki.
The Kitakami mountain range, which runs through the city from north to south, has been as a candidate construction site for the International Linear Collider, a 20-kilometer-long giant accelerator designed by researchers and others from Japan, Europe and the United States.Speech