Mochi Shops in the U.S. Continue the Japanese Wagashi Tradition

When the owners of Benkyodo, the mochi and manju store that stood for 115 years in the heart of San Francisco’s Japantown, announced in May 2021 that they intended to close the shop and retire, newspapers and community members decried the upcoming closure as a cornerstone of the Japanese American community lost.

“It was truly where folks could catch up on the latest news of the community, see old friends, and enjoy a cup of coffee at the burnt orange counter,” says Eryn Kimura, an old family friend of the owners who spent the last six months of the store’s run filming operations for a documentary. Kimura filmed owners and brothers Ricky and Bobby Okamura arriving in the gentle hours of the early morning to mix, pound, steam, and roll the treats by hand in the kitchen behind the store, just as their parents did, and their grandparents before. Kimura’s research revealed many stories that stretched back generations: One Japantown business owner shared that her parents had met at Benkyodo in the 1950s, Kimura said. “Many folks call it the grapevine of the community.”

Benkyodo’s closure announcement was followed by long lines of customers that snaked down Sutter Street and would eventually drape around the entire block. The ambitious arrived as early as 11 p.m. the night before, equipped with a tent to guarantee themselves some of the Japanese confections before they sold out the next day. “There also was one night at 3 a.m. that these college students were waiting in line and they busted out with the most legit hot pot set-up I’ve ever seen,” Kimura remembers. Benkyodo’s final day in business was March 31, and it wasn’t the only long-running Japanese confectionary store to recently shutter its doors. In 2021, Mikawaya of Los Angeles, originator of the mochi ice-cream available in the frozen dessert aisles in grocery stores near you, closed their physical store after 111 years of operation.

But the centenarian Japanese confectionery shop is not extinct. Fugetsu-Do in Los Angeles turns 119 this year, and the family-owned business has no plans to quit. Nisshodo in Honolulu just celebrated its 100th year of operation; Kogetsu-Do in Fresno will celebrate its 107th in September. Elsewhere in the American West, a younger but still long-established generation of confectionary stores are quietly operating: Shuei-Do Manju Shop in San Jose is nearly 70 and Osaka-ya Wagashi of Sacramento nearly 60; Hogetsu Bakery in Chula Vista nearly 40. Gardena, a sleepy hub of Japanese America in the southwest corner of Los Angeles county, is home to Chikara Mochi (37 years), and Sakuraya (62 years). Fujiya in Honolulu turns 70 next year.

The interior and three varieties of wagashi at Osaka-ya: a white bean kiku mochi; kinako red bean mochi with kinako powder; and a fukashi mochi, with smooth red bean on the inside and cake-like texture on the outside.

Each of these places sell mochi, manju, and other palm-sized treats traditional to Japan — collectively called wagashi. Mochi is an immeasurably soft, doughy confection made of sweet rice flour mixed with water and then pounded together. At confectionary stores, mochi is folded in with sugar and wrapped around bean paste to form a round, supple ball. Mochi plays a central role in many Japanese festivities. On the biggest of them — New Years — dollops of mochi are dropped into a bowl of soup. In the springtime, mochi cloaked in cherry or oak leaves are shared for Girls’ and Children’s Day celebrations. Manju, meanwhile, is made with wheat flour, stuffed with bean paste, and then steamed. In traditional tea ceremonies, wagashi are presented with a bowl of matcha from host to guest.

But the centuries-old tradition that is wagashi has evolved its own roots in America in flavors, shapes, and customs unseen in contemporary Japan. In Hawaii, trays of mochi are given away as wedding favors, and butter mochi — rice flour combined with butter, coconut milk, eggs, and sugar and then baked — reigns at potlucks. The milk-infused chichi dango is also given away for springtime celebrations. Square, fruit-flavored mochi is a common sight in American confectionary stores.

Linda Nakatani, the owner of Sacramento’s Osaka-ya, took over operations of the store her parents started in 1963. She sells traditional confections, but “the younger generation doesn’t care as much for the beans,” she says, “so we have mochi filled with peanut butter, chocolate ganache.” Osaka-ya also sells sushi, rice balls, spam musubi, and in the punishing Sacramento summers puts the shaved-ice machine to use, drizzling snow cones with homemade syrups and condensed milk.

The shops, like their wares, are generally small and timeless. A glass case or two displays lacquered trays holding neat rows of mochi and manju. Behind the counter or on the other side of the room might be shelves cluttered with Japanese candies and crackers and figurines. On the counter can be boxes of tea or prepackaged mochi, in the corner maybe a refrigerator of ice creams or chilled drinks or a hibernating shaved-ice machine, and most always a doorway in the back that leads to the mysteries of the kitchen.

Lynn Ikeda is the third-generation proprietor of the 107-year-old Kogetsu-Do in Fresno’s Chinatown. Her grandparents were among the 120,000 Japanese Americans forced by the U.S. government to leave their homes and businesses during World War II for remote prison camps across the country. During internment, her grandparents rented out their business and the building to Chinese neighbors, thus avoiding the loss of property that befell many others.

Her grandfather, Ikeda says, continued to make mochi even in the camps. “He would make everyone leave the kitchen so that he could hold onto the recipe,” Ikeda says. The recipe remains a family secret to this day.

Ikeda’s family wasn’t alone in weathering attacks on the Japanese community and its businesses. In San Francisco alone there were “three, now four, waves of forced removal: exclusion laws of the Victorian era, World War II incarceration, redevelopment of the 1960s, and the hyper-gentrification of the 2010s,” Kimura points out. Ikeda and Nakatani credit the devotion of their immediate communities, and the desire of customers to pass down traditions through their families, as part of what kept their businesses going. “The customers mean a lot to me,” Ikeda says. “To me they are the heart of the business.” Then there was the pandemic. In the height of COVID-19 lockdowns, Nakatani said that she had to lay off all her workers except her two sons. She threw away at least 500 pieces of mochi and manju a day.

While business is better these days, it’s still grueling work running a small food business that relies on physical craft. Making mochi can be a multiday affair; the rice soaks for eight hours before being cooked in a process where the water must be changed constantly. Nakatani says she can easily put in 18 hours on her busiest days. Her son once put in 36 hours straight, stealing hour-long naps in the back of the store.

“Having a manju shop takes a lot of work, and time. It has to come from the heart, really,” Ikeda says.

Community seems to be the key to the wagashi store’s long life. Wagashi can be beautiful — colorful, jewel-like, shaped into flowers or fruit — or spectacularly unassuming, rolled in soybean powder or eaten plain, capable of being swallowed in two bites. But a tray of mochi and manju most always comes at the pauses of time where the good things in life happen: a small celebration, the gathering of family or friends. It has the markings true to all the greatest of foods — handmade, delicious, traditional without being exclusive, infinitely adaptable, and full of memories. It’s hard not to see why it gets passed down from old to new.

Several varities of wrapped mochi on display on red and black lacquer trays.

Assorted mochi on display in the case at Osaka-ya.

Today in Sacramento, Nakatani’s two sons David and Yoshio Murakami help run the business.

“I tell my kids, if something happens to me and I die, forget my funeral, just make sure you get the customers’ orders filled,” she laughs. “I know it’s morbid, but I don’t want to ruin their holidays.”

Ikeda also has no plans to retire yet. “I just plan to do this for as long as I can, as long as I have my health.”

Kimura acknowledges the bittersweet loss of Benkyodo with gratitude for the Okamuras. “Back in the day, they used to be open seven days a week, waking up at 2 a.m. to start manju-making until about 4 p.m. Imagine,” she says. “I’m so happy they get to rest, to spend time with their family and grandchildren, to sleep in, and to revel in the fact that they are indeed their grandparents’ wildest dreams in form.”

For now, in the old and new, the dream continues.

Amber Murakami-Fester is a freelance writer. Andri Tambunan is a documentary visual journalist based in Sacramento.