Thursday, January 19, 2012

Happy New Year: Oshogatsu at JANM

Between the sigh of relief that is Boxing Day and the last burst of merriment at the Feast of the Epiphany, it seems as if the holidays never end. Although in Japan the New Year is observed on January 1, the celebration extends through the 6th with flurry of festivities known as Oshogatsu.

Mochitsuki wins my vote for "Best Food Preparation Method for Venting Frustration." Members of Kodama Taiko turn from pounding drums to pounding mochi.

At the Japanese American National Museum, New Year traditions such as the mochitsuki (traditional rice cake pounding ceremony) demonstration and a performance by Kodama Taiko were presented on Jan. 8 to celebrate the Year of the Dragon. In addition, an onigiri-making contest was held, judged by foodies Russ Parsons, editor of the LA Times Food section; Lynn Chen, blogger, The Actor's Diet and Keiko Nakashima, owner of Sunny Blue, the only shop in Southern California that serves freshly made omusubi.

A sandwich is a sandwich, but an omusubi is a meal: freshly made rice balls are a light but satisfying snack on Santa Monica's Main Street.

Keiko opened her shop in the summer of 2010 to immediate and resounding approval from both locals and tourists, many of whom had no idea what omusubi was. Sunny Blue's rice balls are made of rice wrapped in sheets of nori. The menu features traditional omusubi fillings such as salty fish, Japanese pickles and vegetables like hijiki, kombu, and shisho. There are also contemporary twists on Japanese home cooking, such as everyone's hands-down favorite, Miso Beef, which is made with caramelized onions and homemade miso sauce.

Keiko and her staff make Sunny Blue's omusubi fresh-to-order for fast food with a healthy, homemade taste.

Most of us know omusubi as those frigid rice balls filled with spicy tuna or ume (pickled plum) in the deli section at Marukai or the Spam-filled morsels that have graced many a Japanese American potluck. Keiko and her staff make their omusubi fresh to order; many of the fillings are comfortingly warm, as is the rice that is used. A couple of omusubi with side dishes such as tsukemono or edamame is a light meal or very satisfying snack, a welcome addition to the lackluster cuisine typical of Main Street.

I've just seen a face - and it was made out of rice. Entries for the onigiri-making contest at JANM's Oshogatsu.

Fast forward to Keiko's duties as a judge at the JANM Oshogatsu. The entries to the onigiri contest were a bit atypical, even for the incredibly creative founder of Sunny Blue. Kids of all ages created their onigiri with rice and nori, but that was where tradition ended. They were also provided with dried fruits, olives, herbs, orange peels, and mixed nuts, which they used to make a variety of faces and animals.

Keiko surveys the non-traditional entries to the onigiri contest, which showed a lot of imagination. I wonder if she discovered any new recipes for Sunny Blue!

Another "hands-on" exhibit at Oshogatsu was the amezaiku demonstration by Shan Ichiyanagi. The Los Angeles-based artist has been creating these traditional sugar sculptures for nearly 40 years. At JANM that day, he and nephew Taka Ichiyanagi gave a demonstration of the centuries- old confectionery art, to the delight of onlookers from 9 to 90.

Taka Ichiyanagi creates a sugar sculpture to celebrate the Year of the Dragon.

Shan Ichiyanagi recalled seeing street artists making amezaiku when he was growing up in Sapporo. After meeting Masaji Terasawa while both were attending an English class at Reseda Adult School in 1971, Ichiyanagi asked the renowned artist if he would teach him how to create amezaiku. After shadowing the master as he worked his magic at Disneyland, Ichiyanagi would then practice his own demonstrations on neighborhood kids, who benefited from the beautiful and tasty results.

Ichiyanagi and his nephew Taka, who has been making amezaiku for ten years, are now sought-after performers at not only Japanese cultural events, but at bar and bat mitzvahs across the country. A photo album lying on a table at their JANM appearance was full of celebrities enjoying the sweet life with the Ichiyanagis and their gorgeous creations. But the theatrical aspects of sculpting fantastic creations out of molten sugar syrup belie a simple truth.

“People like candy in general," said Ichiyanagi, "and I create something out of that."

Amezaiku master Shan Ichiyanagi shows off the dragon that Taka created on-the-spot, ushering in a sweet 2012 for all.


  1. Joanie very nice, but I will stay away from the candy, but everything looks great, you are doing great in your writings, and having fun at the same time. You are a beautiful person. bob

  2. I just re read last years post, in addition to todays post, and I will stay away from the Kimchi, not good for the stomach without a little help later on. Remember, I do like your writings, some are very funny as you want to have some fun, and they are all very interesting. Good job. Bob