Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Tucked away on the corner of Dillingham Boulevard and Kokea Street, Nisshodo Candy Store is a hidden treasure. Despite our familiarity with the area, Editor Jodie Ching and I circled around the block a couple of times before we successfully recognized the weathered “NISSHODO” sign; “MOCHI-MANJU” written on the top, and “CHICHI DANGO” on the bottom.
Upon opening the door, a colorful display of sweets and treats caught our eyes – little mochi pillows of white, pink, purple and green. We were greeted by Mike Hirao, third-generation owner of Nisshodo, a business that has been selling its homemade Japanese confections for 100 years. Perhaps the name Nisshodo — interpreted as “the sun never sets” — is the reason for the business’ longevity and prosperity according to a recent “Hardworking Hawaii” feature from KHON2 (khon2.com/hardworking-hawaii/hardworking-hawaii-nisshodo-candy-store-celebrates-100-years-in-business-amid-pandemic/).
Mike welcomed us and showed us around. Many of the wooden trays and tools are originals from the inception of Nisshodo. Every inch of the mochi factory and shop is needed for production; there’s not even room for an office!
Situated between workstations, his voice interrupted by the sound of dings as customers walked in and out of the shop, Mike reflects on the business’ rich history passed down by his grandfather, Asataro Hirao who traveled to Hawai‘i with the initial motive to find employment in the sugar plantations. There, he met up with a couple of friends who worked in the same area.
“They decided that it was better for them to start up their own business instead of working for the plantation,” Mike states. “And so three of them got together and that’s what they did.” Accordingly came the birth of Nisshodo Candy Store in 1921. One of the three founders included Jokichi Tasaka, founder of Tasaka Guri Guri Shop in Maui.
As someone well versed in candy making, Tasaka quickly became Asataro’s mentor. It was during their time working in the plantations together that Asataro learned how to make mochi, a Japanese treat made from rice flour. After starting the business, however, the trio decided to go their separate ways. With Tasaka breaking away from the company to start his Kahului sweets shop, Nisshodo Candy Store fell into the hands of Asataro.
Following the three founders’ split, Mike’s grandfather thought back to his hometown, Shobara — a rice farming area in Hiroshima — especially products unique to the area. He favored their chichi dango, a sweet unique to Hiroshima, specifically Shobara. Dango (the Japanese word for “dumpling”) like mochi is made with rice flour. In contrast with mochi, dango does not contain fillings. Chichi dango is a chewy type of dango that incorporates milk in its recipe. Playing a significant role in local culture, Asataro wanted to share his favorite nostalgic treat from his furusato. Asataro traveled back to Shobara in the the late ‘50s in hopes of learning the secret to making the best chichi dango in Hawai‘i and take Nisshodo to the next level.
One of the popular chichi dango companies at the time agreed to take him in as an apprentice, as they had little desire to sell products in Hawai‘i. Mike states “[The company] in Shobara was initially a dairy company. They started out with surpluses of milk because their population started to dwindle. Everybody kind of moved out of there to find work elsewhere, [and] because they had that excess they started to figure out what they had to do with the rest of the milk. So they developed chichi dango.” They took the nantu recipe for dango, a sweeter Okinawan version which contained ground rice, flour, sugar, and water, and added milk to it. Mike added, “…When my grandfather went there he learned the process, brought it back, refined it, and basically started to produce it at that time.” With different raw materials in Hawai‘i than in Japan, Asataro was able to apply what he experienced in Shobara in a way unique to Nisshodo.
Indicated by its name, Nisshodo Candy Store started more like a candy company. However, the Nisshodo we know today claims its fame from its mochi, dango and manju products.
When asked about the evolution of their products over the years, Mike mentioned various factors. Nisshodo started with a focus on candy products because of its longer shelf life. Mike describes that under his grandfather’s ownership, “As things went along, companies became more specialized…” Types of Japanese rice crackers like senbei and arare originally took up a large part of Nisshodo’s products. In wanting to avoid competition with senbei companies, and with arare becoming cheaper to be imported than made locally, Nisshodo chose to focus on their mochi products. Another reason that Mike mentioned was a lack of resources. “During the war, it was difficult to get certain products,” Mike stated. “Candy is very sugar intensive; mochi not so much. It was difficult to get sugar so it was easier to transform over to the other company.”
Even with the specialization in mochi, Nisshodo still struggled in a booming industry. “…There was a lot of competition during that time. There were mochi stores on each corner. So they started to develop new techniques.” So where did all these businesses come from? The start of Nisshodo Candy Store in 1921 saw a local Japanese-dominated market. In Hawai‘i today, there’s diversity in the ingredients, processes, and forms that mochi comes in. Mike explains that “Each of the Asian countries all makes mochi a little bit different.”
Mike states that product evolution stems from consumer interest. As the years go by, consumer tastes change. Several factors affect the business. Nisshodo continues to improve in both its products and packaging to meet this demand. “We couldn’t stick with traditional products all the time. It becomes boring.”
Competition led Nisshodo to experiment in doing different things, where they now introduce a new product once or twice a year. Today, Nisshodo’s shelves are filled with popular products like peanut butter and lilikoi mochi.
Mike discusses the wide range of consumers attracted to Nisshodo’s products. “By doing the [product] diversity we came to find out the traffic from the tourist industry saw it a little differently. They’re always looking for new experiences.” Social media (e.g., positive reviews on Yelp) spread the word of Nisshodo’s products to different parts of the world. Tourists liked the adventure of trying to find Nisshodo as it is hidden away from the main street. Additionally, there was an interest for Japanese tourists and journalists to find out the shop’s roots in their people. “…They want to see how the successors are doing in the new world.” Interviews helped to promote Nisshodo as well.
Mike tells of the time that a British reporter visited Nisshodo. “He ate it right there in his car. He didn’t move; he stayed there for about half an hour. He came out and said, ‘You know, I finished everything I bought.’ And then I said, ‘Thank you very much, do you want some more?’ He said, ‘Oh I want to do a story, I want to interview you.’ So he did. I took a long time with him. He filmed the whole process. He was amazed we did everything by hand. I didn’t know who he was until he went on national TV.” Incidents like these have become commonplace for Nisshodo. With many contented customer stories, Mike reveals how Nisshodo’s staff aims to serve whoever walks through their door to the best of their ability. One way is through product presentation.
Nisshodo’s staff finds satisfaction in showcasing their products to look as delectable as they taste. This merchandising display reflects positively on the business’ reputation and draws in customers. Mike praises his staff, saying “We try a lot of things that hopefully work out in our favor, and that’s not me. It’s our staff. The people that take pride in what they do.” Mike connects the visual arrangement of Nisshodo’s products to staff joy. “[The] Japanese used to say, ‘People eat with their eyes just as much as the taste.’” That is exactly what Nisshodo strives for. “Whatever we can control we try to make it as presentable as possible. I know I don’t want to eat anything that’s kind of just thrown on the plate.”
Mike recalls times where they received positive feedback for their hard work. “[The staff] take the time to do a good enough presentation and then we take the product over to the customer over the counter. The next customer [in the corner] over there will say, “I want that one too!” With a mix of traditional and modern practices, Mike considers Nisshodo’s future.
Despite his extensive involvement in the mochi industry today, Mike first took on Nisshodo as an obligation instead of a passion. “I was not working in this business from the beginning. I’m a banker. I spent 33 years in banking.” As the next generation responsible for Nisshodo, Mike started with little experience. From this background, he learned a valuable lesson from the business to work hard, know your limits, and rely on others. Mike says, “I wanted to know everything. I can do every single job in this place. If a couple of the guys are sick, I can do their job. I can do the ladies’ job. I sell at the store sometimes. It’s just that, what I had to get away from was this so-called ideal that I saw myself as this big banker that’s supposed to be in control of stuff. No, you’re not. You try to step into a situation and you do the best you can. Again, do not worry about how people view you, and what they think about you. As long as you’re comfortable and you’re trying to do your best. You can survive. That’s what the business taught me; get hounded. Work hard.”
When asked about the future of mochi, Mike confidently says “I think it’s going to be great.” Japanese New Year often kickstarts Nisshodo’s popularity for the year. Used as a traditional Japanese New Year decoration, kagami mochi consists of two rice cakes and a small tangerine, also known as daidai. The larger rice cake sits below the smaller, with the daidai placed on top. The mochi symbolizes the past year along with the year that is to come, while daidai connects to the phrase “generation to generation.” Therefore, kagami mochi celebrates longevity and the bonds of family. Nisshodo’s story calls attention to the daidai of kagami mochi, that the passing of practices from older to younger generations keeps Japanese culture alive.
In Mike’s case, this comes as simple as talks with his grandson. Referencing the Japanese word, “Ganbatte!” meaning to do your best, Mike advises younger generations with his biggest takeaway from Nisshodo. “Strive to do very well despite adversity, and then know your limits of what you can do. In order to grow, you got to push your limits out and feel comfortable with what you know. The more you know, the larger your limits are going to be. And then you’re not afraid to tackle anything.”