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Vista temple rings in New Year — Japanese style

VISTA — What’s round and white and associated with winter? For the Japanese community in North County, it’s not snowballs, but sticky rice flour balls called “mochi.” Every year, the members of the Vista Buddhist Temple gather together for a day of making and eating this Japanese confection. This year’s “mochitsuki” lunch and fundraiser took place Dec. 21.
The Vista Buddhist Temple site has been a center for Japanese culture since 1937, and making mochi has always been an important tradition. In Japan, villagers would celebrate the year-end rice harvest by making mochi from a sweet, sticky rice. Japanese-American Vistans have preserved this practice since the days their great-grandparents immigrated to North County in search of agricultural work.
Most of the mochi was rolled into palm-sized balls for eating. Several were set stacked in sets of two with a tangerine placed on top. These kasane mochi are placed near the temple altar as an offering to the gods.
Traditionally, the cooked rice is pounded in a lava stone with a Eucalyptus-head hammer. It’s arduous work, and in places like Vista, the hammerers have been replaced with electric boxes that look like miniature washing machines.
“Makes it a lot easier on our backs,” Donald Suyenaga said as he poured rice into a yellow rice kneader. “Growing up, there was a lot more of us around, we could do it by hand … No matter what, even though we make it in the machine, we will do at least one batch traditionally. Got to or it’s just not right.”
Last week, Suyenaga made mochi at the San Diego Buddhist Temple. They insisted on doing things the old-fashioned way, so he and the other rice pounders began working at 5 a.m.
There are plenty of Vista Buddhist Temple members who prefer the old ways, too. “That was fun times though, when you pound it,” Yoshi Shishido said. “It tastes better when you pound it yourself than the machine.”
The Vista mochitsuki differs from the Japanese tradition in many other subtle ways. The temple’s culture is inherited from the Japan of nearly a century ago and has taken a life of its own.
“We’ve had some exchange students from Japan and they don’t recognize a lot of (our traditions) because in present life in Japan, they don’t practice it as much as it’s practiced here,” temple member Mick Kubota said.
Still, both Japanese and Japanese-Americans agree on their love of eating mochi. One young temple member had just one caveat.
“If you have braces, don’t eat it,” Curtis Omori said. “I had it stuck for two months.”