Remember this beauty?
A few weeks ago I posted this picture on Instagram which generated a lot of interest so I thought I would make a little journal entry about it.
This wooden artifact was found on a river mouth. It was sitting there all lonely, so I knew I had to give it a new loving home.
This artifact is a wooden mortar called an usu (臼).
I remember the first time I saw an usu. It was while rummaging through an old storehouse condemned for demolition. It was beautiful. I asked what it was. Then they all yelled back "USU"! And they all made hand motions of pounding a sledge hammer.
Unbeknownst to me, usu are large wooden mortars that are a seasonal harbingers of the new year. Traditionally, Japanese households would gather and pound sticky rice into rice cake (mochi) during the New Year's celebration.
These huge and heavy wooden usu used to be used for many things such as threshing and pounding, but now they are mostly used during the making of mochi. Although different kinds of wood were used, Keyaki (Japanese Elm) which is a hard wood with very tight pores, is the most common. The first usu I took home was made by the warehouse owner’s grandfather so it is very folksy. However, there remains specialist professional usu makers who make beautiful usu in a variety of sizes, from hugmongous to not so large.
These wooden usu are traditionally made by atz, axe, chisel and curved planers. The creation process is painstaking because the makers do not know if cracks and faults will appear in the center of the wood until they are practically finished carving. In the unfortunate case when such cracks appear, they need to discard the whole wood block (and their hours and hours of work) and start all over with a fresh piece.
The wooden mortor comes with a wooden mallet with a two foot long hammer head. The men would pound while the woman would turn the doughy rice over. Mostly done by couples; the pairing and teamwork needs to be just right. And people cheer and sing while the cake is being made.
This teamwork between couples may have given rise to the usu sometimes being used in weddings as well. The ceremony is called "iwai mochitsuki" which means "celebratory mochi making". I was fortunate enough to be part of a wedding where the bride and groom took part in pounding and turning the rice. The wedding party was full of joy as they shouted and clapped as the couple worked as one.
I admit, I don't make mochi with my usu. Instead, I love to put glass fishing floats inside them as decoration. The picture below has both usu holding a 14 inch float to show the size difference of each usu. True story, I got my wrist caught putting that float inside the usu on the right and had to scream out to my husband to help lift it up... He said my dramatic screams of being injured by an usu reminded him of the Japanese fairytale about the monkey and the crab. The Quarrel of the Monkey and the Crab
An 18 inch glass float sits more happily inside the larger usu.
These usu are heavy and beautiful. As modern Japanese move away from the rural village and rice making, the ownership of usu has dwindled. But its association with the holidays brings a smile to most Japanese faces as they act the pounding and turning motion. It is a celebratory item that you might find on your next trip. Just don’t ask me how you are going to ship it back!
How would you use your usu?