Making mochi and watching penguins

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Four men take turns whacking a grainy mass of wet rice into shape in a parking lot in Nagasaki, Japan. They were prepping the rice so that it could be made into dough for mochi, a sweet bean-paste-filled snack.

By Betty Gordon

© 2016 text and photos. All rights reserved.

Among the things I love about traveling in Japan is that you never know what’s just around the corner.

After the emotionally intense hours of visiting many of the 80-plus statues, monuments and museums dedicated to the bombing of Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945  (see my previous post), I was looking for a polar-opposite activity.

Destination: the Nagasaki Penguin Aquarium.

I had a brochure about the aquarium that I had gotten at the tourist information center. The helpful woman there told me where the bus stop was and which bus to get on.

While waiting at the bus stop, I approached a woman and pointed at my brochure. I was in the right place, but several buses had come and gone, none displaying any English destination signage, so I was hesitant to board. She made sure that I got on the right bus.

This is another thing I love about the Japanese: their willingness to help intrepid solo travelers.

I showed the brochure to the driver to alert him to where I wanted to get off. I needn’t have worried about that because as we got closer to the aquarium, there were large signs advertising the attraction and I could see the coastline.

On the 30-minute ride out from the city center, I noted geometrically perfect, well-tended farmland juxtaposed with trim homes set into terraced, verdant hills.

When I disembarked, I ran into my kind of unexpected.

In a parking lot, four men, armed with old-fashioned, long-handled wooden mallets, were heartily thwacking in quick succession a white mass of short-grained glutinous rice nestled in a wide, deep gray stone bowl that was set into a steadying square wooden platform — think mortar and pestle on a grander scale.

Wallop after wallop, water flew from the dough, softening it, drying it and solidifying the grainy mass. The men were eager to convey their individual roles in the process, though this was accomplished more through pantomime than conversation.

Around their perimeter was an electric rice cooker, mounds of rice in half-moon straw baskets, buckets of water, several hoses and other implements — everything this team needed for rice dough production.

Though this activity was providing full-body exercise for the men, it had a purpose, too.

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Mochi-making starts with squeezing off a small round bit of dough between the thumb and index finger (woman at far left and man fourth from right).

Next to where they were working was a white-roofed, red-and-white-striped tent. I had to investigate, of course.

In production-line style, gloved and masked men and women were pinching off small, ball-size portions of rice dough, rolling it round and passing it to the next station, where floured hands were efficiently inserting sweet red bean paste and sealing the edges.

The puffy rounds were then set in precise rows into a floured tray to rest, awaiting their turn in a bamboo steamer.

Curiously, all the women were wearing aprons but the men were not.

I was busy taking photos — after asking permission — when one eager woman thrust a still-hot mochi, as the chewy rice cake is called, into my hand. I got out some yen coins as fast as I could and spread them in the palm of my hand because I had no idea how much they cost.

She immediately refused the money. “No, no,” she said. “Present.”

In a flash, she retrieved the mochi she’d just given me, scurried away, returned almost immediately with a second mochi, then packed them in a plastic bag.

I smiled, bowed respectfully, and slid the handles of the plastic bag over my wrist.

While I was watching the rice-pounding men, a woman who spoke English approached me. She told me that all the workers were getting their product ready for a small festival.

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These men are fanning the freshly steamed mochi to cool them before packaging for transport.

I surveyed the scene for a few minutes longer, then headed to the aquarium.

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These penguins on parade are mostly Humboldts. They’re found around Chile and Peru in South America.

I knew the antics of these black-and-white birds would make me laugh, but the kids I encountered, maybe 5 or 6 years old — dressed in orange-and-white T-shirts and shorts, with orange caps — gave the waddling birds a run for their money.

Their innocent faces were beaming with joy, especially when the kids flocked after the penguins on parade, from the building onto the beach and toward Tachibana Bay.

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What could be cuter than kids enthralled by penguins? These are the Humboldts that paraded out of the building.

The aquarium has nine of the world’s 18 penguin types: the king, gentoo, chinstrap, macaroni, rockhopper, Humboldt, jackass, Magellanic and little, which lives up to its name. The nocturnal little penguin, native to Australia and New Zealand, is the world’s smallest, weighing about 2.3 pounds and standing about 14 inches tall.

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The largest penguins at the Nagasaki aquarium are the kings. They have the distinctive red markings on their lower bill and can weigh up to 35 pounds.

At the other end of the spectrum, the king penguin, with red accents on its lower pointed bill, is almost 3 feet tall and weighs about 22 to 35 pounds.

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At feeding time, this group was raucous but relatively well-behaved as they waited for fish to be lobbed in their direction.

The aquarium has about 180 penguins, more than half born on the premises. Visitors are welcome to observe feeding time, pay extra to feed the birds themselves and view the outdoor pools where the penguins frolic and swim with speedy abandon.

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The Nagasaki Penguin Museum is about a half-hour ride by public bus from the central part of the city.

After a few hours of tuxedoed fun, I headed back to the bus stop. Alas, the mochi operation and all evidence of it had disappeared.

Quick reference: Nagasaki Penguin Aquarium, 3-16 Shuku-machi, Nagasaki City, Japan; penguin-aqua.jp/english

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