The cases at the tiny Daruma Japan Market in Bethesda were packed with octopus tentacles and sweet rice cakes yesterday. Soothing flute music flowed through the sound system. For Sakae Raw, it conjured memories of New Year's at home in Yokohama.
"On New Year's Eve, we celebrate the Western way and drink champagne. The next day, we celebrate as Japanese," said Raw, a 33-year-old Columbia housewife who drove an hour to stock up at Daruma.
On mornings at the end of the year, shoppers wait at the door for opening time at the market off Arlington Road, eager to buy traditional Japanese New Year's delicacies, including mochi (pronounced MO-chee), cakes of pounded sweet rice usually eaten on New Year's morning.
New Year's is Japan's biggest holiday, with celebrations beginning very early Jan. 1 and continuing through Jan. 3.
At the Daruma Japan Market, Fumiko and Yasuyoshi Yokoyama have long catered to homesick immigrants, diplomats and many other of the more than 19,000 people of Japanese descent in the Baltimore-Washington region who hunger for the taste of their home country. This season, the Yokoyamas will sell more than 500 trays of fresh mochi alone.
"It's the busiest time of the year," Fumiko Yokoyama said.
In the steamy kitchen, a sushi chef folded rolls of rice and seaweed. Not far away, Tommy Norris recreated the ancient art of mochi-making with a tub of the soaked sweet rice and eight rice-cake cookers. The 22-year-old from Reston, a junior at Virginia Commonwealth University, has been making mochi on his winter school breaks for the past four years.
Norris, whose mother is Japanese, doesn't eat mochi now -- he's around it too much -- but he said he has fond childhood memories of the traditional dish.
"I always used to eat it with a little dried seaweed and soy sauce," Norris said as the cookers rumbled, steaming and then pounding the rice into a pliant dough. He will make 62 trays today, then head back to Richmond for some Western-style celebrating with college buddies.
In ancient times, mochi rice was pounded smooth with a large mallet. It is rarely made that way now, but each year the Yokoyamas try to evoke that traditional cooking process with a mochi-making festival. Next month, more than 150 locals will come to take a turn at pounding the rice with the mallet, which is supposed to bring good luck.
Jiro Kamimura, a consultant and former head of the Washington office of Mitsubishi Corp., drove to Daruma yesterday from McLean for his holiday menu: mochi, beautifully wrapped cubes of fish paste and a three-tiered lacquered box of fish, chestnuts and vegetables cut into the shapes of tiny cranes and turtles.
In Japan, Kamimura said, New Year's Eve is a traditionally quiet affair that caps a week of frenetic housecleaning and cooking. After midnight, the bells at local temples ring 108 times -- one toll to drive away what Buddhism regards as each of the 108 evil human traits.
By 2 or 3 a.m., temples and shrines are packed, he said, and many revelers stay up to watch the year's first sunrise. Family gatherings follow. Most Japanese workers take off from their jobs through Jan. 3.
"It's a large occasion, comparable to Christmas," Kamimura said. "January 1 is the most sacred day. Everyone prays for the New Year."
Fumiko Yokoyama stood at the shop's front door yesterday and bowed to Kamimura and other customers as they left with their New Year's purchases. She's been doing this since 1989, when she immigrated to the United States in hopes of teaching Americans about the Japanese way of cooking. Yokoyama and her husband opened their first store in Rockville that year and moved to Bethesda in 1998.
"All the Japanese customers come in and say, 'Ah, this is just like Japan!' " she said. "That's what we like to hear from them."
Another shopper passed by and said thank you in Japanese.
"Domo arigato," Yokoyama replied. And then, "Happy New Year."