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Changing Leaves of Time

Sakura mochi, a delicate pastry wrapped in a cherry-tree leaf, is still made each spring. But sales are falling as younger generations fail to connect with the tradition.

March 23, 2000|RENEE TAWA, | TIMES STAFF WRITER

On that day, in 17th century feudal Japan, the temple guard gathered leaves from the shogun's drooping cherry tree. In the waning days of spring, he pickled the sakura leaves and, according to legend, wrapped them around a dollop of sticky steamed rice called mochi.

So began a tradition, born on a whim. It endures--like a willful but frail ancestor--in places including Southern California. Here, in cramped mochi shops, three or four kinds of sakura mochi are still handmade, the color of a delicate blush, pillowy as a crepe. You might find 30 or so variations on mochi--steamed, pounded rice. But around this time of year, perhaps none is lovelier than the sakura mochi, wrapped in a tender, young cherry-tree leaf from Japan.

Compared with plain, everyday mochi, the sakura specialty is, say, what a designer truffle is to a bar of chocolate. With the touch of mochi makers known as shokunin, or artisans, sakura mochi, which is made only in February and March, is as soft as a sweet dream, evocative as a Vivaldi refrain--but as ephemeral as the four seasons.

In Japan, sakura mochi rolls out each year around the national pastime of hanami, or cherry tree viewing, which is tracked daily by TV weather forecasters who map the best spots for picnicking.

The ritual is twined with a sense of yearning and poetry--no one knows exactly when it's time for the trees to move past the bloom. Even now, Japanese-born Soyu Koizumi feels the pull of the sakura trees, 20 years after moving to California.

"It doesn't last too long. It's beautiful. And it goes away so quickly," says Koizumi, a Villa Park resident who grew up eating sakura mochi made by her mother.

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Each spring, Koizumi awaits the return of sakura mochi. But traditionalists wonder: Will the subtle notion of sakura mochi carry on in a world of fad food peddled by talking Chihuahuas? What chance does such a humble harbinger of spring have?

Such a blink of a 90-cent sweet is not the stuff of headlines, not the angst of ethnographers, not the baby of any preservationists. But if we are to note, bit by bit, the erosion of ethnic heritage, the dilution of culture in this place we call multicultural, in a nation of immigrants, then perhaps we should give pause when the tiniest of symbols takes a turn from tradition. . . .

In Japan, mochi used to be serious stuff. Kids there don't look for the man in the moon; they see a rabbit pounding mochi in the night sky. For tea ceremony, the specialty mochi called wagashi is tender enough to slice clean with a toothpick.

Mochi and related confections traditionally are redolent of nature and rife with allegory. One kind, for instance, is transparent, with floating specks of sugar suggesting water massaging stones in a brook. Another kind looks cracked on the outside like the fissures in rocks made by a slow-trickling temple fountain. The New Year's Day mochi is round and white, a pure offering to the gods with no rough edges.

And on and on, which makes it hard to swallow the mochi knockoffs of late that have as much meaning as a jelly doughnut.

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Take frozen mochi filled with ice cream or half a strawberry. Sesame-garlic mochi for baking that swells like a puff pastry. Mochi-making machines so you don't have to do the pounding with wooden mallets. In Japan, the Daily Yomiuri newspaper prints recipes on how to gussy up sakura mochi with a cream cheese filling spiked with cherry liqueur.

The idea is to monkey with mochi so the MTV generation will buy it.

With issei--first-generation Japanese immigrants--dying out, mochi makers in Southern California wonder if there'll be anyone left who yearns for sakura mochi at winter's end.

In the last two decades, sales of sakura mochi have dropped by about 30%, says Frances Hashimoto, owner of Mikawaya, a chain of mochi shops that began in Los Angeles 89 years ago and includes a branch in Hawaii. She still sells hundreds each day during the season. But nowadays she has to explain what sakura mochi is and that the leaf is edible. And customers ask her why she doesn't carry it all year--which tells her that the meaning of the season is becoming lost.

Still, she can't imagine letting the ritual slip away.

"Even if a lot of people stop [asking], we will probably still be making it," she says. "That's why we exist, my company . . . we try to follow the traditions, and we've been doing it, even if a lot of the isseis are not here anymore."

One morning, at Fugetsu-Do confectionery, owner Brian Kito makes the day's batch of sakura mochi. Kito crafts each one himself. It's tricky to get the outside crepe just right, and he flips them by hand on the grill to get a feel and control that would escape a spatula.

"That's mochi," he says.

Here, in Little Tokyo's oldest shop, he is practicing an art that he learned from his father and that was passed on by his grandfather, who founded the shop in 1903. Yes, sakura mochi sales are down, perhaps by half since his father's time. But Kito also says he won't stop making them.

"It's just the way that things are done," he says.

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