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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Japanese traditional mochi-pounding brings people together

Jan. 22, 2018

Rice cakes are a culinary tradition in East Asia and beyond. They're associated with celebrations like New Year's. Families and neighbors get together to pound steamed sticky rice into what is called "mochi." This tradition has recently taken on a new life -- through a professional mochi-pounding service. Making sticky rice cakes is now a trendy way to bond.

In downtown Tokyo, several men are working up a sweat as they practice pounding sticky rice to make Japanese mochi rice cake. It's a backbreaking job. The wooden mallet weighs 6 kilograms. The men are professional mochi pounders.

An event firm started the service 5 years ago. Since then, the business has been growing year by year. The firm gets more than 150 bookings in the 2-month peak period around the New Year.

"We started the service almost by accident, but recently we've been getting loads of inquiries from housing complexes, shopping malls, communities and so on," says Ryota Sakakibara, the CEO of the company.

The pounders synchronize their breathing so they can coordinate their movements deftly. Entertaining spectators is their top priority.

On this day, they visit a housing complex just outside Tokyo. Since residents move in and out very often these days, they say that they have little contact with their neighbors. The manager of the complex booked the firm hoping a year-end event would bring the residents together.

The firm brings along all the utensils and ingredients needed to make mochi rice cakes. First, sticky rice is steamed in a pot for about an hour. Residents show up one after another. Many of them are meeting each other for the first time.

Next, the steamed rice is put into a mortar. Then they begin pounding it. Two people work together. They take a deep breath. One pounds the rice, and the other turns it over. They continue this process until the sticky rice turns nice and smooth.

They whip up the crowd to create a festive mood. Soon, there's soon a smile on everyone's face. The freshly-pounded mochi is now ready to eat. Today, it's being served with azuki beans and roasted soybean powder.

"We had a really good time!" "It was fun. I had no idea so many children live in this complex. It was nice spending time with them," say the residents.

"The mochi-pounding event turned out to be a great success. I heard many people saying they want us to organize more of these events," says the manager of the housing complex, Yoshiki Sakihama.

Demand for the mochi-pounders is highest at year-end and the first few days of the New Year. Today's client is an IT firm with 150 employees. The company is holding an event to usher in the New Year.

You could hear a pin drop in the office. Discussions about work and everyday conversations take place online most of the time. A supervisor and a newcomer sit face to face, but hardly ever say a word to each other. Everything is done electronically. "We tend to do business just by chatting online. Honestly speaking, we're completely used to this way," "I sit quite far from my boss. The distance keeps me from talking to him," say the staff.

The company president, Masaru Akiyama, arranged the event, hoping it would give his employees a chance to talk face to face. "I realized that it's important to create a space for a real communication in a relaxed atmosphere, so I organized a mochi -pounding event," he says.

The staff gather in a corner of the office. "I'd like to invite you all to take part in this mochi-pounding event," says a member of the event company. The mochi pounders give the employees a helping hand so they can get the most out of the experience.

The supervisor and the newcomer who chat online take part in the event. "We got along so well in a relaxed and happy atmosphere. We had a candid conversation, too. I think I've started off the New Year very well," says the supervisor.

"Of course, this is a business. But our mochi -pounding service is actually a way of protecting a Japanese tradition. With the help of my staff, we're going to do our best to keep it going," says Sakakibara.

Mochi pounders bring people together. In the wintry chill of the city, they put smiles on people's faces and warm their hearts.