Years ago, I had my first manju, a traditional Japanese confection, at Benkyodo, a shop in San Francisco’s Japantown. It was a mochi manju—sweet glutinous rice (that’s the mochi part) around an even sweeter red bean filling. I thought it was delicious, but the combination of the gumminess of the mochi rice and the graininess of the mashed beans is not for everyone. In the 1987 indie film Living on Tokyo Time, directed by the Oscar-winning filmmaker Steven Okazaki, the hero, Ken, an over-assimilated, third-generation Japanese American like myself, goes into a sweet shop just like Benkyodo looking for a jelly doughnut and is offered a manju instead. “Looks weird,” Ken says. “I’d rather have a doughnut.”
This article appears in the Fall 2022 issue of Alta Journal.
Although one can find Japanese food items like sushi and ramen nearly everywhere, manju is still something of a culinary outlier, even among many Japanese Americans. For plenty of dessert lovers in the United States, its primary significance is as the inspiration for the nationwide sensation that is mochi ice cream. In the early 1990s, Frances Hashimoto, the head of Mikawaya, a Los Angeles–based manju confectionery, began tweaking the traditional recipe to make a more accessible dessert. She replaced traditional red bean paste with balls of ice cream, and mochi ice cream was born.
The original Mikawaya store in Little Tokyo had been in Hashimoto’s family since William Howard Taft was president. The confectionery served traditional handmade desserts whose lineages could be traced to the 14th century. Hashimoto was born in 1943 in the Japanese American internment camp at Poston, Arizona, and grew up in L.A.’s Boyle Heights, then a Japanese American enclave. A University of Southern California grad and former grade-school teacher, she probably had plenty of Kens in mind when she created mochi ice cream.
It was a pretty radical idea at the time. Few non–Japanese American folks had even heard of mochi. And why would you want to muss up a perfectly good scoop of French vanilla by packing it inside a thick skin of sticky sweetened rice? Beyond the weirdness of the combo, there were the logistics to consider: How do you fill mochi before the ice cream melts without all that glutinous rice getting stuck to your fingers? (Answer: Move quickly, and cornstarch.)
Hashimoto devised the frozen concoction with the help of her husband, Joel Friedman, who got the idea while on a trip to Japan. In the mid-’90s, they began selling the treat at Mikawaya’s flagship shop, where it became the top seller.
Mochi ice cream transformed Mikawaya into a dessert destination in Little Tokyo, a generation before boba shops, Taiwanese patisseries, and Hawaiian shave ice purveyors put down stakes in big-city neighborhoods and the malls of suburbia. Not long after I moved to Los Angeles, when one was jonesing for a sweet treat in Japanese Village Plaza, there was imagawayaki—red bean cakes served hot off the griddle—at Mitsuru Café, Mikawaya’s mochi ice cream, and not much else. If it was hot outside, the choice was clear.
At first, Mikawaya’s mochi ice cream offerings were limited to your U.S. standards (chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry) and Japanese favorites (green tea and, perhaps in a nod to manju’s roots, red bean). Before long, though, the company added more flavors to the mix, including plum wine, black sesame, and matcha.
So lucrative was Hashimoto’s creation that, three years after her death in 2012, a private-equity firm bought the company. Originally sold in Mikawaya stores in U.S. cities with large Asian populations—like Torrance and Gardena in Southern California and Honolulu—Mikawaya mochi ice cream can now be found in the freezer sections of Japanese grocery chains like Nijiya and Marukai as well as Whole Foods, Target, and Trader Joe’s. Alas, the original flagship store in Little Tokyo closed in 2021, after 111 years in business. (Sadly, after 115 years in San Francisco, Benkyodo also closed, in March of this year.)
In the late-’80s setting of Living on Tokyo Time, Ken has two options in that sweet shop: jelly doughnut or manju. And the one he picks has cultural implications, particularly to the manju-shop guy (played by Lane Nishikawa, a fellow third-generation Japanese American who was also the artistic director of San Francisco’s groundbreaking Asian American Theater Company). What sort of Japanese person would eat a jelly doughnut when they could choose a manju? In the end, Ken is cajoled into picking the manju and is none too happy about it. Today, of course, he could have mochi ice cream and live in the best of both worlds.•