By MATTHEW ORMSETH, Rafu Contributor
For most of us, the holidays are a time to unwind, a much-appreciated and all-too-brief respite from the grind of work and school. But for Brian Kito and the rest of his staff at Fugetsu-Do, things don’t get any easier during the holidays — they just get crazier.
“It’s a small little store,” Kito said of Fugetsu-Do, a Little Tokyo fixture that has remained in his family for over 100 years. “In order to meet the demand, we have to work 24 hours a day for about four days.” New Year’s is the busiest time of year for Kito and Fugetsu-Do. Ten years ago, a number of Kito’s friends gathered in Fugetsu-Do’s kitchen to help him fill the flood of New Year’s orders. The name of this group? “They call it ‘Mochi Madness,'” Kito said with a chuckle.
The group was started by the late Nancy Kikuchi, who every year would help Kito package and ship mochi into the smallest hours of the morning. The operation is not staffed by employees — only volunteers. “These people are just my friends, folks who come in and help me throughout the night,” Kito said. “I have the luxury of having some really good friends.”
Over the years, Mochi Madness has enlisted the aid of various social and volunteer organizations. Among other groups, the Nisei Women’s Legacy Group, which is made up of past Nisei Week Queens, has volunteered this year to help Kito meet the New Year’s rush. Kito believes that Mochi Madness is emblematic of the JA community’s willingness to help one another in times of need. “The making of mochi (mochitsuki) is the coming together of family, friends, and community, working together for a common goal,” he explained. “In other words, reinforcing the Japanese culture of teamwork to start the year well.”
Mochi is indispensable to Japanese New Year’s festivities, which explains the crush of orders Kito receives in the days leading up to the holiday. Families and business-owners place kagami mochi, or “snowmen mochi,” in the windows of their homes and stores on New Year’s Eve for good luck in the coming year. Families exchange boxes of mochi as gifts, and mochi serves as the primary ingredient in ozoni, a Japanese New Year’s staple. “Ozoni — the soup — is for good luck,” Kito said. “In my family, we’ve never had anything other than ozoni for the first meal of the year. It’s always been our first meal, every year.”
Despite the long hours, sleepless nights, and lists of unfilled orders that seem to trail off into infinity, Mochi Madness is still a source of joy for Kito. “I’m very fortunate and blessed to be a part of it,” he said. “I cannot thank the volunteers enough for their good spirits that they all bring to my store during Mochi Madness.”