Tucked amongst the shops and restaurants lining 1st Street in Little Tokyo, the storefront that is home to Fugetsu-Do has remained largely unchanged since it was remodeled back in 1956. It’s small, with wood shelves stocked with snack foods, as well as a display case and drawers filled with the shop’s signature treat, mochi. Stop by on a weekend and you might see a line of customers extending out onto the sidewalk waiting for their chance to indulge in the beloved Japanese confection.
Founded in 1903, Fugetsu-Do is the largest producer of traditional New Year’s mochi in the United States - a task that keeps the family-owned shop running 24 hours during the last few days of the year. While it’s a store steeped in history, Fugetsu-Do has also popularized contemporary takes on its staple item, like Peanut Butter Mochi, Korey's Chocolate Mochi with a ganache center, and the snack-sized Rainbow Dango.
Fugetsu-Do is doing record business as it nears its 120th anniversary. “When COVID hit, we took off,” says Brian Kito, the third-generation master wagashi confectioner at the helm of Fugetsu-Do. “We’re comfort food.”
Mochi is associated with a few different holidays — Girl’s Day, Children’s Day and the Tanabata Festival among them, Kito notes — but the greatest demand for the traditional confection made from glutinous rice is around New Year’s Day, when it’s eaten in a soup called ozoni. New Year’s mochi is typically made by a large group of people who work together as they pound the rice, an event called mochitsuki.
Kito surmises that a form of mochitsuki happens when the "Mochi Madness" team of volunteers come together in the last few days of the year to help him fill orders. "It’s about teamwork," he says. "You end the year working as a team for the mochi for New Year’s Day."
Kito has spent much of his life at Fugetsu-Do. “My Christmas vacation was always at the store, even going back to when I was five years old,” he says. While still a junior high student, he ran a soda fountain inside the shop during the summer. (The mid-20th century soda fountain is still there, although it’s no longer operational.) He spent his teen years helping out with the New Year’s rush. During college, he juggled classes with six days of work at the shop. In 1986, a handful of years after he graduated college, Kito took over Fugetsu-Do from his father, Roy.
Kito’s tenure at the mochi shop founded by his grandfather, Seiichi, hasn’t been easy. He notes that business slowed in the late 1980s as fewer people headed to Little Tokyo. Around the time of Fugetsu-Do’s 90th anniversary, Kito almost gave up on the business, but he had told his father that he would stick it out until the store’s centennial. “When I got to the 100th anniversary, I realized that I was so entrenched in the community here, that there was really no leaving,” Kito says.
Fugetsu-Do’s 100th anniversary also marked the start of an era of confectionary experimentation. One of the shop’s most popular items, Peanut Butter Mochi, came out of this period. Its chewy, lightly strawberry flavored mochi exterior and peanut butter center was intended to evoke memories of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. A few years later, Fugetsu-Do introduced the equally delightful Korey’s Chocolate Mochi, named for Kito’s son.
The shop also offers packages of bite-sized mochi meant for snacking. The Rainbow Dango attracts a lot of customers with its multicolored stripes. Kito says that originally this treat was a red and white striped mochi that was a longtime Fugetsu-Do item, but when sales went down he gave it a facelift. "We started making them in little dango sizes with multiple colors," he says. "The minute we started making that, it took off again."
Part of the reasoning behind this, he says, was to appeal to a younger clientele, noting that there had been a period of time, particularly in the 1990s, when fewer Japanese American kids were coming to Little Tokyo. "I had to appeal to a generation of Japanese Americans who didn’t really have a lot of experience in Little Tokyo or with my product," he says.
Kito adds, "The reason I say that is that Japanese Americans are my fundamental market. Anything on top of that is the icing on the cake. But, the economy of Little Tokyo is always dependent on Japanese Americans to take ownership of this area."
Fugetsu-Do also has a line of "artisan" mochi that includes Strawberry Anko topped with hazelnut chocolate ganache; Green Tea, and Blueberry Anko - blueberries are cooked with white bean paste to produce a subtly sweet flavor.
Kito notęs that, in the past few years, retail business has increased not only for Fugetsu-Do, but for the neighborhood in general. "When COVID hit, Little Tokyo became more important for Japanese Americans to support and they came out," he says. "I think they thought they were going to lose Little Tokyo. It’s a reflection of our culture."
There’s a key to Fugetsu-Do’s longevity. "The community feels it's theirs," he says of the shop. "It's not just my store, it's the community store."
"We have people who are grandparents now that remember coming to the store as children with their grandparents," Kito adds. "That connection to those days as a child of coming with your grandfather, grandmother - it stays forever."
315 E. 1st St.
Los Angeles, CA 90012