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New Year’s Delicacy Is Bittersweet for Family

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.

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“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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

“I was drudging through this order,” Brian Kito recalled. “It was 600 pieces of the same thing. But they were nice people, and I knew it would make their day. It was also tradition. It made sense.”

That’s not to say Brian Kito runs the business exactly as his father and grandfather did.

Unlike his father, who focused solely on making and selling mochi, Brian Kito divides his time between running the family business and getting involved in the community. He busies himself during slower periods by organizing volunteers to patrol Little Tokyo and staff a police drop-in center to attract visitors to the neighborhood and, he hopes, his family’s business.

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At any given time, two dozen or more varieties of namagashi are for sale at Fugetsu-Do, which also has a small shop in Little Tokyo’s Mitsuwa Marketplace. The edible art sells for about 90 cents a piece, and each variety conveys something about nature, Kito said. For example, kuzu manju -- sweetened, dark azuki bean paste covered with a translucent mochi coating -- is meant to resemble a brook running over pebbles. “It’s suppose to give you the feeling of being cool,” he said.

On a recent afternoon, he recounted how the family business got started, as he prepared a large batch of yokan -- sleek, green bars made of sugar, lima bean paste, water and gelatin -- in a massive copper kettle. His grandfather Seiichi Kito learned how to make yokan and other treats at a shop called Fugetsu-Do in Japan.

Seiichi Kito bestowed the same name on the shop he opened in November 1903 with the help of his business partners to serve Little Tokyo’s growing Japanese community.

“Nobody had a pastry shop in Little Tokyo back then, so it would get very busy,” Roy Kito recalled. “We would put up a rope and tell customers they couldn’t come into the store.”

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Business was disrupted during World War II, when Seiichi Kito and his son Roy were among the 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry sent to internment camps. At the Heart Mountain camp in Wyoming, Roy Kito said, on a small stove, his father made manju -- cake-covered, bean-filled pastries -- for elderly Japanese.

After the war, the family returned to Little Tokyo. But because they could not afford to pay the back rent demanded by their landlord, they found themselves without the equipment to resume their pastry-making business. Roy Kito said he started Fugetsu-Do grocery store, from which the family started selling namagashi.

At a recent mochi-making demonstration, Brian Kito said, an elderly Japanese woman recalled running sugar rations from her family over to his grandfather, so Seiichi Kito could make manju for them.

Brian Kito is searching for more anecdotes for a family reunion next year. He said it’s common for his three siblings and many cousins to recall the days leading up to each New Year’s as a time of working hard as a family.

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“They remember napping on the sugar sacks and shivering in the back as the fans cooled the namagashi,” he said.

He plans to keep running the business as long as it continues to draw customers.

Although he hopes that his son Korey, 2, will possess the Kito family work ethic, he doubts the boy will follow in his footsteps by someday running Fugetsu-Do.

“I’m almost positive he won’t,” Brian Kito said. “But my son will still grow up with a father with a little more culture than if I hadn’t done this.”

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