Dear friends! Isn’t this mochi dough in front of the golden screen beautiful? The dark shadows against the golden background and the substance growing from the plate surely will not leave your imagination at ease. That’s exactly what we wanted with photographer Matěj Dereck Hard, because mochi dough is not just any dough. Mochi is a gift that must be celebrated! It is made from rice, which is the foundation of everything good for life in Japan, as every Japanese person knows, it is simply a divine gift. From this gift, the Japanese have nourished their bodies and souls for centuries.
Every Japanese person knows … but I am Czech and as such I only perceived rice as a side dish to meat and sauce from my childhood, moreover I didn’t particularly like it. Japanese rice, when I first encountered it at twenty years old, was glossier and tastier, and I was grateful that it stuck together a little in clumps, which helped me at least not to be left hungry. Although to be honest, for the first few days, there were plenty of scattered grains all over the table after I ate. Chopsticks crossed, and my legs hurt in seiza position, but all of that quickly gave way. The harder part for me was the pressure under which I constantly adjusted to what others were doing. I didn’t want to be part of a group; I wanted to be different, unique. That’s how I was raised in my Western world. But bearing my individuality in Japan was difficult and strangely unhelpful, and I quickly realized that I needed to find my way to the Japanese people. I wanted to join in. I had no choice but to let myself be beaten down a bit. Like mochi. Interestingly it was precisely mochi that helped me in my efforts. It is now more than 45 years ago when this happened: I found myself at a festival where mochi was being pounded. It was fascinating to see how those who pounded the hot, freshly cooked mochi rice into a shiny homogeneous dough were inserted into their work like wheels into a live machine. The machine of life. Two people took turns in striking from both sides. They held large mallets in their hands and those mallets, once they started to go down, could not be stopped. I held my breath. The pounders shouted words of encouragement and joy burst from them. Even the one who was turning the dough in the tub was shouting happily. He had to do it quickly, so that the heavy wooden mallets wouldn’t fall on his hands. Yoisho, dokoisho! Yoisho dokoisho! What a beautiful rhythm it was. The collective uplift of bodies and souls, and I wanted to be a part of it. I wanted it so badly, and that feeling stayed with me and raised me up. I understood how beautiful it is to be free, both as an individual and as part of a group.
The pounding of mochi was so fundamental thing in my mind that, along with tatami mats and other Japanese equipment, I had a pounding tub, called a usu, brought to Miyabi for mochi pounding. We even have the mallets, called kine. We pounded mochi on May 5th, 1995, on Tango no Sekku, the Day to celebrate the strength and bravery of boys, but also of all children and people. We pounded mochi on many occasions, even with children who were visually impaired. They joined in and experienced the intense feeling that they were contributing to something important. They heard the pounding, heard the joy, and sensed that their arms, their strength, and they themselves were helping to create a joint work – a smooth and glossy homogeneous dough. Mochi.
Usu is a large, thick, wooden stake with a round hole carved out where the mochi rice is placed. The mallets do not slip, and everything is at least somewhat under control. However, the most crucial aspect is human cooperation. Miyabi’s usu is still in Miyabi, even though it is no longer suitable for pounding mochi. Our environment has different humidity levels, and it was extremely difficult to keep the barrel from cracking. Every day we had to pour water into the barrel and pour it out again and dry it, because if the water was there for too long, the wood started to turn black. When there was no water, the barrel cracked. We sanded the black off, but it didn’t help much. We tried many things, but eventually we assigned a new purpose to our usu. My son Lukáš had a beautiful glass bowl blown by Czech glassmakers, copying the shape of the opening and its edge. The usu became a tsukubai. Tsukubai is a container, usually made of stone, that stands in front of the tea room ochashitsu, so that guests can ceremonially purify themselves of everything that makes them unprepared for the ceremony of the shared experience of the meeting. Of course the water must be clean and flowing.
Our usu-tsukubai symbolically connects both the collaboration and the purity of intention. Next time you visit Miyabi, take a look at it. As soon as you climb up three wooden steps that lead to a stone path between tatami mats, you will see the barrel to the right. There is water in it, as it should be in every tsukubai. The water and the container itself are a reminder that we humans want to be good and that we should not only be me, but also us. Also, it is not enough to just have food, but we must also be able to combine our forces, harmonize our movements and impulses, and take joy in all of it. Adapting to others does not have to be a burden, as I used to experience it, but a beauty that is a blessing of life.
I am grateful that the Japanese showed me how to make mochi. Through mochi, an important message was conveyed to me, preparing me for my mission to bring omotenashi hospitality to you. Now, I have attempted to summarize mochi and omotenashi in a haiku poem. Just 5-7-5 syllables and everything is said. How do you like it?