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New Year's Delicacy Is Bittersweet for Family

An L.A. shop has made mochi for 99 years, but times and tastes have changed.

December 30, 2002|Julie Tamaki | Times Staff Writer

Just like his father and grandfather before him, Brian Kito grabs a steaming, 2-pound blob of rice and, in a matter of seconds, coaxes it into a smooth bun.

Kito is making okasane mochi: large, double-decker pieces of steamed, kneaded rice that, when topped with a dainty tangerine, in Japanese culture are said to symbolize the new year and a hope for prosperity.

It is a task the Kito family has dutifully performed for generations, helping supply Japanese Americans in Los Angeles with the many holiday variations of mochi, one of Japan's culinary delicacies.

This holiday season, it is taking on a particular significance. Fugetsu-Do, the mochi confection shop that Kito's family has owned since 1903, will turn 100 next year, a cause for celebration in downtown Los Angeles' historic Little Tokyo neighborhood.

"I never expected it would last for 100 years," said Roy Kito, 83, who handed the business over to his son, Brian, 18 years ago. "I'm kind of happy Brian has kept it. He makes me proud."

The shop's 100th anniversary, however, is somewhat bittersweet.

The New Year's season isn't as profitable as it used to be, partly because of growing competition at home and from Japan, according to Brian Kito. And as Japanese Americans become more assimilated, they are buying less mochi.

Customers' New Year's orders, which were paid, wrapped and bagged in advance, once filled three binders, according to Brian Kito. Now, there are only 100 to 150 advance orders -- a change he attributes partly to the proliferation of Asian markets that have boosted the availability of mochi.

Japanese traditions that feature the treats are also practiced by fewer people in the United States, he explained. Spring sales of sakura mochi, which is prized for its blush color and young cherry-tree leaf wrapping, have also weakened.

In many ways, the market mirrors what has happened to the Japanese community, which has moved from Little Tokyo to the suburbs, taking its purchasing power and developing tastes for non-Japanese desserts.

That's not to say the business has lost significance.

Fugetsu-Do conjures up fond memories for many in Southern California's Japanese community, perhaps because, other than its location, so little about the business has changed over the years.

Customers relish the gold and white paper that the Kito family has used for decades to wrap their pastry boxes. The shop's display case is the same one the family has used since it moved to its current 1st Street location in 1956, as are the two dozen wooden drawers used to sort pastries for packing.

So dear are Joanne Tashiro-Tang's memories of the shop that when she got married in August, she dragged her husband, Terence Tang, and their wedding party to Fugetsu-Do so they could be photographed there.

"A lot of my family didn't understand why I wanted to take photos there for my wedding," said Tashiro-Tang, who lives in San Jose. "But when I was little, my grandmother used to take me there. She always used to say that Fugetsu-Do was better."

"So I think she would understand why I was doing it," Tashiro-Tang continued. "And I hope she would be proud I was remembering."

Fugetsu-Do will face its biggest rush of the year over the next few days as mochi-loving customers snap up tens of thousands of pieces for their New Year's celebrations.

Japanese not only like to give the treats as gifts at New Year's, they also use the okasane mochi to decorate their homes, and they float smaller pieces of plain mochi in ozoni, a special New Year's soup.

During December, the staff of Fugetsu-Do makes an average of 4,500 pieces a day, compared with 1,500 to 2,000 pieces a day the rest of the year.

"Right now, we make mochi all day and all night long, so by New Year's, our hands are pretty much scorched," Brian Kito, 46, said of himself and his predominantly Latino crew.

New Year's aside, the mochi business isn't what it once was.

Waning traditions include handing out namagashi -- sweetened bean paste, typically wrapped in a thin layer of mochi or a cake coating -- at funerals. Funeral attendees give envelopes of money referred to as koden to the family of the deceased, and in exchange the family bestows the pastries on those attending.

"It's a dying of some traditions," Brian Kito said. "It's the type of thing that was typically learned from Grandma and Grandpa."

Still, he is ready to serve families that want to carry on Japanese traditions. He recalled a recent order placed by a family that had lost its matriarch, a 102-year-old woman named Daisy whose favorite color was violet.

Rather than choose a traditional funeral confection, the family worked with Kito on a custom, two-piece set. It consisted of a violet flower and a white flower, each made of mochi and topped with a yellow center made of bean paste and sprinkled with poppy seeds.

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