Tochi-mochi (rice cake made with Japanese horse-chestnut) is sold at various places in Tsuruoka. Although Tochi-mochi is delicious due to its unique taste and being chewy, the chestnut has strong astringency, and many sensitive procedures are required to remove the astringency. The chestnut is used to make Tochi-mochi. We had an interview with the member of Namezawa Chestnut Society at Namezawa area where the chestnut is preserved by the whole Namezawa community for a long time.
When we visited the society in August, the story we heard from three members, including Ms. Namba, on the preservation techniques that are more than 350 years old, we were completely astonished.
There’s a communal mountain owned by their society where the chestnut tree was planted since in old times. Their traditional custom to enter the mountain in autumn, and we requested to accompany them. The date was set for the 26th of September. It was a unique experience since only members of the society ware allowed in this territory.
It was a refreshing walk along the path where various kind of broadleaf trees not only chestnut but cedar and beech were leaning over us.
All members of their community take turns in caring for the chestnut tree. One day they’re cleaning up the branches from the ground, mowing, and on another day they’re trimming ivy that covers the tree, in every July.
We accompanied four locals from the community, it happens that three of them are members of the society as well.
In the past more people used to do this work, but the members of the community and their society is lowering every year. “I’m sad for the lack of members, there used to be more like us” said an elderly member from the society.
The experienced members know how dangerous the mountain is, they don’t expose their skin due to bees and pit vipers. Their outfits also makes the chestnut picking easier.
The experienced members walk easily on the path, but not us, we keep in grabbing branches on bushes while trying to keep up with their pace on the steep slope. Thinking of the way back, they will bring 15kg of chestnut each. Now we can tell that it’s definitely not easy to pick chestnuts.
They kept telling us their old stories of broken bones by falling, being stung by bees and pit viper, or seeing footprints of bears, to make us more careful on our walk. They take every step carefully while they pick the chestnuts in the bushes. This hard work takes the whole day from 9am until 5pm.
“I’m happy if we can find big ones or just many chestnuts on the ground.”
“Are you? Me too!”
They laugh along.
This year was a good harvest. Their bags were filled up to 7-15kg that day.
The sound of the falling chestnut from the tree gives us autumn vibes on this day in late September.
Some of these chestnut trees are more than 350 years old, and grew humongous.
It was heartwarming to see the pickers talk to each other on any occasion while picking, like sharing the next harvesting point. The wisdom to help each other in this harsh natural environment has remained until now.
To get more answers to our remaining questions, we visited tochi-mochi making in Namezawa area. All members say it is an difficult and long process to prepare the chestnut.
The persistent work takes more than 6 months.
It seems there are many undescribed procedures in the making. They work here on almost every day between 6am and 10am. each household removes the astringency from the chestnut by themselves.
It took 20 years for the tree behind the building to produce chestnuts.
Actually, it was last year when the society members including Ms Namba started the preparation to make this horse-chestnut mochi. They inherited the knowledge behind the preservation and making of tochi-mochi from elderly people passing down their techniques to them.
It may seem a hard work that was passed down by former producers of this product, they feel passionate about preserving the knowledge and they also want to develop new products from the chestnut that they can pass down of the younger generation.
Although they seem quiet humble people on first impression, actually they are very passionate hard workers.