Around May last year, my family and I moved to Portland, Oregon from South Florida. One of the reasons was it’s active Japanese culture, and I recently attended an event which truly personified this culture: Mochitsuki 2017, held in Downtown Portland today (Jan 29).
Mochitsuki (餅つき or もちつき) is a tradition in Japan which involves pounding glutinous rice to make rice cakes (called “mochi”) in preparation for the new year. This tradition has been around for several centuries, being said to have occurred since the Japanese Heian period (794-1185).
The actual process of mochitsuki involved getting in a large line, and then when it was our turn our son was allowed to pound the rice inside of a mortar (臼, usu) with a large wooden mallet (杵, kine). The rice had been pre-pounded by a group of four people right before the event started, so it was already somewhat gooey, and each person was only allowed five hits with the mallet. (I heard that four people pounding rice at the same time isn’t too common in Japan, but that’s a minor point)
As you might imagine, the act of pounding itself isn’t breathtakingly exciting, but it’s the tradition that matters, and the fact you are doing it with friends and/or Japanese people (or those with Japanese heritage).
Fortunately, the Mochitsuki 2017 festival is packed with many more things to do in addition to the actual rice pounding. There was a koto performance which was quite beautiful, a storyteller telling some interesting tales, ikebana (traditional flower arrangement) mini-class, cooking classes, things for sale, kendo demonstration (Japanese fencing), attendance of a go club (you know the one with the white and black stones on a large grid), and yutaka/kimono try on and photoshoot for children. Of course, no Japanese event is complete with a taiko performance. (This actually isn’t a complete list, there was even more than I mentioned here).
There was also some good Japanese food, including a selection of bentos and omochi (by Nichiren Buddhist Temple of Portland), ramen tasting, and one of my favorites, curry by Kalé restaurant. All of these where a little pricey, for example a small tray of beef curry with rice for $8, but it was still worth it.
The event lasted from 11am-4pm, though after around 3 hours we had our share of activities and food. (One suggestion for next year: please have some coffee available). It was held on several floors of a Portland State University building, and there was a big enough crowd to fill up many of the rooms and hallways.
But more than anything else, there was a very large number of Japanese people. We met several friends there (some planned, some by chance) as well as some Japanese teachers. There was also a good number of international couples (by this I mean one parent is Japanese and one isn’t), and of course many bilingual children running around.
Whether you want to experience some (mostly) authentic Japanese culture, make some Japanese friends, or just catch some native Japanese speech in passing, this is a great experience for all people interested in Japan and the Japanese language. The main reason I said “mostly authentic” was because during the storytelling portion, I asked someone what you call a storyteller in Japanese, and was told there isn’t really people like that in Japan. (The storyteller did do a good job however)
At this event, there was a few times where I said something in Japanese to a Japanese person, and was responded to in English. To be fair, I acknowledge that communication is more important than using a specific language, so it’s just something I have to get used to. I think those people I had this experience with either were stronger in English (they all appeared to be fluent in English), assumed I would know English better (technically true) or both. But when I try to ask a question in Japanese to get some extra conversation practice and hear English coming back, it’s hard not to be disappointed a little bit (:
Tickets were $4/$7/$10 depending on your age (being free for 4 and below and 88 and above), and the price was well worth it. We bought tickets ahead of time online, and just in case it gets sold out I recommend buying them in advance if you go next year. Much of the event was run by volunteers, so if you are interested in volunteering you can contact them.
For more information see the event site here.