By SHARON YAMATO
I first learned about Fresno’s landmark mochi shop, Kogetsu-do, 16 years ago while doing research for the Japanese American National Museum’s Annual Dinner Gala. The event’s theme, “Honoring the Family,” paid tribute to more than 70 businesses run by families for three generations, many of them starting out as mom-and-pop operations that were still going strong after more than a century.
Most of the honorees were businesses that had managed to survive despite all odds, the biggest obstacle being sudden and prolonged interruption by the wartime incarceration. Four of them were well-known in their regional Nihonmachis for making and selling the perennial Japanese sweets, manju and mochi, but it’s doubtful that many people outside of their immediate areas were able to partake of their freshly made goods.
On the list of honorees besides Kogetsu-do in downtown Fresno was San Francisco’s Benkyo-do, still run today by the Okamoto brothers, and of course, L.A.’s Mikawaya and Fugetsu-do, the latter soon to be carried on by a fourth generation when Brian Kito’s son takes over.
In those days, I was not a frequent visitor to Fresno, nor was I a particular manju-ya aficionado. As a child, I remember those beautifully arranged boxes of pastel-colored, flower-decorated rounds wrapped in striped paper and tied carefully with strings as they arrived for every special occasion. They looked almost too lovely to eat, but they were definitely considered a favored delicacy.
Being raised on such sweets as Hostess Twinkies and Ding Dongs, I remember biting into them and being taken aback by the sweet bean paste tucked inside each one. Call me a mochi non-traditionalist, but I just couldn’t get used to the idea of azuki beans sweetened and mashed inside pounded rice.
You can only imagine my delight when Lynn Ikeda, Kogetsu-do’s third-generation mochi maker and owner, arrived at the annual dinner carrying boxes of mochi unlike anything I’d ever tasted before. Some were bursting with farm fresh strawberries and blueberries, while others held tasty peach and apricot jam.
I was later to learn that in addition to the fresh fruit and other traditional manju, Lynn made sinfully delicious dark chocolate mochi filled with almond or macadamia nut toffee or Nutella with peanut butter. After I discovered her creations, let’s just say I made a regular point of driving the 450 miles to downtown Fresno to satisfy my craving for it.
The Kogetsu-do Sansei owner invented these unique mochi treats using the well-worn recipes of her grandfather, Sugimatsu Ikeda, who started the family business with his wife, Sakino, in 1915, first on Kern Street in Fresno’s Chinatown. In 1920, it moved nearby to its present location in the once-thriving Nihonmachi District on F Street, until the war forced the family to leave the shop in the care of a Chinese family while the Ikedas were incarcerated, first at the Fresno Assembly Center, then at Jerome, Arkansas, and Gila River, Arizona.
The family was able to resume business upon return to Fresno in 1944, when sons Roy and Masao took over the operation. Not wanting to see the business die when her father, Mas, became ill in the 1990s, Lynn, who graduated with a major in criminology, faithfully carried on the business to the surprise of other family members. Armed with recipes she doesn’t share with anyone, except possibly Emi, her college-aged daughter, she still wakes up early five mornings a week (they are closed on Wednesdays and Thursdays) to begin the secret backroom production of her grandfather’s sweet rice treats.
Today, Kogetsu-do stands on a lonely street in a failing Nihonmachi neighborhood. There has been talk about revitalizing the whole Chinatown area, but for now it is probably the last Asian American business on the block. Fortunately, according to Lynn, word of Kogetsu-do’s mochi has traveled throughout the state, and people like me from far and wide make a special pit stop in Fresno to grab as much as they can of her one-person limited daily production of mochi and manju.
One devoted fan, Sandra Komo Gauvreau, even takes to-go orders for friends in Los Angeles and the Bay Area as she drives through on the Interstate 5 during her frequent travels to L.A. from her home in San Mateo County.
Even though Emi has been seen helping out her mom at the counter, Lynn’s only child has already expressed interest in pursuing a career in graphic design. She helped her mom design a new Kogetsu-do logo and brochure, but that’s likely the extent of her mochi business involvement for now.
That’s sad news for the many fans of this amazing manju-ya, but Lynn is happy continuing to make mochi and to personally greet customers who drool over her amazing chocolate and fresh fruit creations. Now in her 60s, she still has many years of mochi-making ahead of her, though she is quick to admit that the future of this family business may rest in her yet unborn grandchildren. In the meantime, her devotees can’t get enough of the soft sweetened rice balls that break from tradition in such delicious ways.
Sharon Yamato writes from Playa del Rey and can be reached at [email protected] The Rafu Shimpo’s management and staff continually strive to maintain high editorial standards for professionalism as well as accurate and balanced news coverage. The inclusion of a particular piece, including columns and op-ed submissions by contributing writers in print and/or digitally, does not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the owners, management, individual staff members, and editors. The Rafu Shimpo welcomes responses to any article published in print or digitally. Responses may be sent to author directly or emailed to [email protected]**