Making mochi for more than 90 years
Nisshodo Candy Store turns out handmade mochi six days a week in an unlikely industrial setting near Honolulu Community College, using the traditions established more than 90 years ago by its founder.
About half of the mochi is sold wholesale to stores that include Marukai, Shirokiya, Longs and Don Quijote, while the other half sells to people who make their way to the warehouse location.
Richard Hirao, now 89, and his late brother Thomas took over the business from their father, Asataro Hirao. Richard just last year passed it on to his son, Mike, full time.
"We're trying to keep it going as best as we can," Mike said.
Judging from the frequent lines at the little counter in the warehouse, Nisshodo will be popular for a long time to come.
Customers often enter the small retail outlet to find only a remote camera watching them as they study the glass case to decide their selection. Eventually, an employee appears and takes their order.
More often than not, customers come for Nisshodo's No. 1 specialty — the chichi dango, pink-and-white milk mochi morsels that sell for $6 a pound.
But others come for the traditionally crafted mochi, the flower-shaped bakugan, the manju, the jewel-like creations or the peanut butter mochi.
Mike Hirao, 59, notes that the store has kept busy even as some of the old-fashioned Japanese Girl's Day traditions of dolls in glass boxes faded. But he and his wife, Ursula — who has worked there for 33 years — have seen the customer base grow in number and in ethnicity.
Mike has looked into using more machines to craft the mochi but kept returning to the handmade assembly line as the best method.
"We could always do a lot more, but there's risk to that," Mike said. Still, he said, "last year was probably our most profitable year" even though the shop mostly relies on word-of-mouth referrals.
He's still looking at ways to help ensure that the mochi-making continues to the next generation — even if his children don't take it on — and maintains the quality standards set by his grandfather.
"I'd really like the employees to take over if no one else wants it," Mike said.
Mike's father, Richard, still goes to the store at least once a week after a lifetime of doing every job there. Richard explained that his father — the founder — had intended to work on the plantation when he moved to Hawai'i from Hiroshima but his small stature made him better suited to work inside than in the fields. So he learned to make mochi from the Tasakas on Maui (known for their frozen guri guri concoction).
Nisshodo started out specializing in hard candies and ame candy but shifted focus during World War II, when sugar became more scarce, to mochi, which took less sugar, Richard said.
The store was on King Street but in 1985 moved to the current location after a fire.
Richard said he'd planned to become a poultry farmer but slowly got pulled into his father's business.
Son Mike went off to a 30-year career in banking and moved full time into mochi-making just last year.
If you doubt the addictive powers of the handmade mochi, check out this Yelp review online from Shannon B., who wrote from Chicago in December 2008:
"My fiance was a two-pound-a-week chichi dango junkie. Then he started pushing it on me ... I held out for a while, you know, the old 'It feels like flesh, it can't taste good.' Eventually I caved. I was suddenly thrown into a world of midnight trips to the kitchen to stuff my face full of the pink and white goodness. When we moved to the Mainland we went cold turkey. It was a rough couple of months until I found a recipe. I'll be in Honolulu in a month and I'll be at Nisshodo in a month and an hour."
Mike said he measures the success of the family business by "the number of calls that we get from people who ask for directions," since that means new customers.
The store always served as the background of his life, as he folded boxes as a kid and helped out on days off. Now, he's come to enjoy it more than ever.
"I like the people. I enjoy the relationships established," which, like the chichi dango, haven't changed too much over the decades.
"My personal favorite. I like the chichi dango," Mike said.