Note: the following post is an excerpt from my WIP, the Bath Tub Stories.
– It is taken from the chapter on New Year’s festivities.
Picture source: http://www.wabei-mono.com/blog/2007/12/
The entrance to the shrine grounds greeted us with steamy wafts of think sweet air coming from the over-sized iron pot dangling from its tripod over a large wooden fire contained in a metal barrel. Red bean soup with soft white balls of pounded rice simmered with long steady puffs of invitation calling the crowd to gather at the shrine.
“Later,” Aki told me at the hint I might venture on over to grab a bowl of soup. “We’ll have some azuki soup on our way out. It’ll settle well in our tummies while we’re soaking.”
“No time now,” she barked, marching on ahead of me. Stuffed shopping bags were swinging at her side, powered by the pumping of her arms. I scampered to dodge people trying to catch up with her.
We found the mocha-making corner at the far end of the grounds. Three long tables with white cloths stretched out before us. The center table held wooden framed trays filled with flat, palm-sized powdery balls of doughy rice patties. The table to the left was covered with empty tray yet to be filled, and Jitsu and her friends were serving hot green tea at the table to the right. The pounding bowls, situated between and behind the tables, looked like deep birdbaths perched on cement pedestals. The men ruled the pounding bowls while the women orchestrated the activities at the tables.
“Mama! Angel-san! You are just in time!” Kenichi ran up to greet us, quickly taking the bags from Aki and handing me a large wooden mallet. He pulled me over to one of the pounding bowls. Three other men were anxiously ready to take over in explaining the process of mochi-making to me. Speaking all at once, I found it easier to watch the activities at other pounding bowls to get the idea.
“Yoosh! Yaroo!” I cried out, “I’m ready, Kenichi! Let’s do it!” Feet firmly planted, knees slightly bent, heavy mallet raised high over my head, I was primed, prepped, and biting at the bit.
“Aim for the center,” Kenichi yelled just as I swung. The mallet plunged into the thick, sticky wad and it stuck. It stuck there like it had been grabbed and clinched by the blob of dough. All the other swinging mallets at other pounding bowls slapped and sprang back out in a high energy kind of rhythmic dance. Mine was firmly stuck.
The men fell back away from the bowl laughing and marching in circles - knee-slapping, hand-clapping hilarity broke their concentration.
“Oh Angel-san, you are so funny!”
“You can’t stick it like that!”
“Get Angel-san some sake! She needs to loosen her elbows.”
The women giggled, but no one moved to pour me a drink.
Kenichi grabbed the mallet from me and proceeded to demonstrate: mallet up, breath in, knees bending; exploding exhalation used to fuel the downward swing, body lifting, Whap! That’s the full thrust of the mallet into the big pile of sticky rice dough; then body lowers to power the reflex snap-up pull at the end of the exhale.
“Yank out of the swing at the exact moment of impact?” I asked.
“Un. Whap! Pull!”
I gathered my energy and lifted the mallet, this time more dramatically, more deliberately. Controlled breath guided my power. It landed hard into the lump of rice and indeed, snapped back out!
“Woa! Get in there,” Kenichi ordered.
The men swooped back into position. They reached into the pounding bowl and scooped up one side of the over-stuffed, pillow-like wad of the rice as if lugging the side of an inflatable swimming pool. They punched it hard in the middle and pulled back their fists just as I brought the mallet back into the center.
Whap! And pull; whap! And pull. Fists were flung into the white material each time I brought the mallet out and over my head – lift and punch. Down with the mallet – whap! And pull.
I began to dance my role. Dip and such as I lifted; jump and slam and I beat. My partners were an integral part of the dance – lean inward, lift and punch in time with my jumps, then sway back from the bowl with grace and ease, a gentle receding with each powerful blow from the surprising strength of my arms.
The rhythm worked like cogs in antique machinery – clickity-clack; clickity-clack; on and on until the rice was smooth like taffy.
Picture source: http://kiroma.wordpress.com/
We plucked mochi from the trays with disposable chopsticks and took them to the tea table where we wrapped them with dried, crispy strips of seaweed. Then we laid them on a grill over the nearby fire. Turning them with our chopsticks until they were drippy and gooey, I swallowed hard the saliva that pooled on my tongue in anticipation.
Jitsu appeared quietly at my side offering me a saucer with a soy and sugar mixture.
“Your mochi is done, Angel-san,” Aki told me. “Now dip and eat.”
I slathered the mochi into the sauce and slurped it into my mouth.
I moaned the savory satisfaction then passed the saucer to the woman next to me.
“Hurry up,” Aki said, “mine is ready next!”
Jitsu brought us each cups of hot green tea to help wash the thick sweet lumps down our throats. She retreated from the circle unnoticed, just as she had arrived.
“No more,” Aki told me as I gulped my third mochi. “You still want azuki soup, don’t you? It’s bad for your health to stuff your tummy before taking a bath.”