How Shuei-Do Manju Shop in San José Inspires a Cult Following With Its Soft, Pillowy Mochi

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A box of six colorful mochi, with a plastic top and the shop's label on it.
For close to 70 years, Shuei-Do Manju Shop has been delighting customers with its "country-style" mochi, so soft, so fresh, that eating one is like eating a baby cheek — but in a good way. (Rachael Myrow/KQED)

To be honest, The Shuei-Do Manju Shop is not quite a hidden gem. It was established in 1953, and word has been out for almost 70 years now. But hidden or not, it's certainly a gem — There’s almost always a line at this little shop on Jackson Street, the main drag in San José’s Japantown.

The mochi made here by hand is so soft, so pillowy, one Instagram follower described them as “baby cheeks,” and this journalist (cough) can confirm the description is accurate.

"They’re some of the best I’ve ever had. It’s always nice and fresh," said Gene Takahashi from the Takahashi Market in San Mateo (another hidden gem, by the way). "I have a legion of addicts that come shopping at my store, looking for this." He drives down twice a week to pick up 40 pieces of mochi for his store on Thursdays, and 80 to 90 on Saturdays.

If Takahashi miscalculates demand, and the treats don’t sell out, he’ll be unable to resist eating what’s left, especially the Kinako (top row, center in the photo below): That’s the mochi filled with white lima bean paste, covered on the outside with a blizzard of soybean flour.

"There’s a trick to eating it," Takahashi advised. "You have to make sure and take a breath first before you bite it, so you don’t inhale, and sneeze, and get brown powder in the air!"

Six pieces of mochi, from top left, pink, sandy-colored with powder topping, white, dark gray, and two gray mochis with white sugar powder topping.
Which to pick? There's no wrong choice at Shuei-Do Manju Shop in San José's Japantown. (Rachael Myrow/KQED)

Japanese teatime sweets are called wagashi, and there are hundreds of varieties, many regional and seasonal. Here in the U.S., much of what you'll find in supermarkets has been shipped directly from Japan. There are even Japanese chains like K. Minamoto that feature stores in  California and beyond.

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But stores run by Japanese Americans are a special breed, and there are a vanishing few. Benkyodo in San Francisco's Japantown is expected to close at the end of the year. More widely, the Japantown mall has had a rough pandemic.

Tom and Judy Kumamaru, the owners at Shuei-Do, specialize in mochi. Those are the sweets made with glutinous rice pounded into a paste and steamed, sometimes flavored and cut into squares, more often molded into something the size of a golf ball, filled with white lima or red adzuki bean paste, and lightly dusted so they don’t stick to your hand or the little paper cups they come in.

The Kumamarus also make manju (baked) and chichi dango (made with rice flour, versus rice). On the day I visited, wobbly pink squares of strawberry chichi dango were the featured special.

Their kitchen is tiny, packed with ancient copper kettles, giant steaming baskets, a baker’s oven and a simple wooden table for assembly. The two of them move with steady, practiced ease: pinching off the mochi paste, pressing with fingers to make a space for the filling.

A whiteboard details the treats at Shuei-Do, saying "chichidango flavors" in multicolored marker, with a drawing of a bear with a mask on top of a mochi pastry.
The teatime treats at Shuei-Do are made fresh, sans preservatives. Plan to eat them within three days, presuming you make it home without having finished them all. (Rachael Myrow/KQED)

"There’s no real recipe. Everything is by look, feel and timing," said Judy.

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The Kumamarus didn’t start out in sweets. Judy was a dental technician. Tom worked for an electronics company. It so happens, Judy’s parents were pals with the original husband-and-wife team, the Ozawas, who launched Shuei-Do Manju Shop in 1953. So when they were ready to retire, in the late 1980s, Judy’s parents lined up a transfer of ownership.

"The shop was well known," Tom explained. "It was already established. No competition. No other shops are around, until you go to San Francisco or LA or Fresno." In short, they knew there was already an established, loyal customer base.

But Tom and Judy had to say yes to taking over the business before the Ozawas taught them the trade, and it turns out to be a lot of work. "I get here about 5 [a.m.], and I don’t get home till 8, 9 [p.m.]," said Tom. The couple downsized the menu of varieties from around 20 to around a dozen, but still struggle to meet consumer demand. They pull all-nighters ahead of major holidays.

While there are machines now that can churn out thousands of mochi in an hour, the Kumamarus looked into them years ago, and decided against the mechanical mochi-makers. They didn’t like the prospect of just running a wholesale business, spending their days on the computer, on the phone, managing accounts.

Tom and Judy Kumamaru make the peanut butter mochi, introduced into their lineup by customer demand.
Tom and Judy Kumamaru make the peanut butter mochi, introduced into their lineup by customer demand. (Rachael Myrow/KQED)

Also, in a world where many mochi can be prettier to look at than tasty to eat, it matters to the Kumamarus that their preservative-free, “country-style” mochi tastes the way they like it: soft, fresh, not too sweet. They're so particular, so focused on quality, they get relatives in Japan to ship them specialty ingredients that aren't available in the U.S.

The Kumamarus like the simple delight it brings customers. "I love it when someone bites into it and they just go, 'Ooooh.' They like it, you know?" said Judy. She added she's seen people open their boxes right outside the store and down several mochi immediately, unable to wait until they get home. They get customers from Los Angeles and Japan. NHK, Japan's public broadcaster, profiled the shop a few years back, delighting Judy's relatives in Japan.

The outside of Shuei-Do, a mochi shop, with its door wide open. It has blue awning and beige lettering.
When they first started, Tom and Judy Kumamaru were open six days a week, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Now, it’s four days a week, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (Rachael Myrow/KQED)

Somehow, 34 years have passed since the Kumamarus started. The original owners, the Ozawas, lasted 35 years. Who is going to continue this critical community service if Tom and Judy can't convince their kids to?

There are four kids to choose from. Like other family members, the Kumamaru "children" (they're grown now) already help, when they aren’t busy with their own jobs. Like that Instagram account keeping Shuei-Do current with younger foodies? That’s the kids. But it’s not a sure bet one of them wants do this for another 35 years.

"The minute we get in here, it’s nonstop till we close. It’s hard for just one to take over. You would need a few people, in order to get all this done. So it’s still up in the air. They’re still not saying!" Judy said.