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8th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest

Mochi Wishes

On the day of the Tanabata Festival, the summer sun cast rays of golden light onto the streets of Little Tokyo. The sizzling smell of yakisoba cooking in stalls around the corner taunted Yuki Clearwater. At fifteen years old, Yuki felt a bit too old for the festivities—or at least that is what she told herself. She knew how important the Tanabata Festival was to her family’s shop Usagi Mochi, which sat on East First Street for generations.

The amount of customers in the shop had slowed to a trickle in recent years and the wrinkles on her father’s forehead grew more numerous and defined. So Yuki tried not to complain this year when she had to work, even when her friends told her they’d be out watching the taiko drummers and crunching on sweet cups of shaved ice.

Kids in yukatas ran past Usagi Mochi’s shop windows, laughing as they pulled a rainbow of paper streamers behind them like kites.

“Dad, can I go out?” Yuki asked halfheartedly, resting her face in her hands.

“Out? Oh yes, great idea!” Yuki’s dad, Ray, shouted from the kitchen, his muffled voice just barely audible above the sound of the mixers. Yuki perked up.

“The peanut butter mochi is ready to go out!” Ray hollered. He had notoriously bad hearing.

Yuki sighed and walked to the back of the shop. She struggled to pick up the large tray of pink treats, turning sideways to fit between the small door leading to the store counters.

Yuki finished placing a batch of kazu manju under the shiny glass counters. A peculiar shadow inched across Yuki’s hand as she began to set the pink, peanut butter mochi on display.

Yuki turned, peering out the shop window. To her surprise, eyes peered right back at her. The face of a black cat with long, pointed ears had created the shadow. The cat stared right at Yuki, its green eyes round like full moons. Yuki wiped the mochi flour off of her hands, preparing to shoo the cat away from the storefront when chimes above the shop door jingled, signaling the first customer of the day.

Irasshaimase!” Yuki smiled, taking her eyes off of the cat and greeting an older woman with shimmering grey hair.

“May I have one box of rainbow dango?” the woman asked, her voice crackling like fire.

Yuki pulled out the round dango, the colorful stripes of the treat reminding her of the fukinagashi decorations floating outside of the Japanese American National Museum down the street.

“A young girl like you should be out during Tanabata,” the older woman said.

“It’s the shop’s busiest day of the year,” Yuki replied, trying to smile. She placed the full box of dango on the countertop and began wrapping it in crisp paper.

“Tell me you’ll at least be making a wish and hanging it on the tree in the square. I just love to see everyone’s tanzaku wishes blowing in the wind,” the woman said.

Yuki tied a bow around the box.

“I’m getting too old for those kinds of things,” Yuki said. She looked over at her father, his hair, flecked with silver, had grown more unruly after Yuki’s mother had passed. He was rolling out dango, the sweet flour sticking in the air like snowflakes as he poured it onto the table.

The cash register opened and closed with a ding as Yuki calculated the woman’s change with ease.

“In case you change your mind,” the woman said, reaching into her bag and placing three bright strips of tanzaku paper onto the counter. Yuki looked at the yellow, blue and pink paper strips as the woman left the shop. Yuki slid them off the countertop and placed them on one of the worn, wooden shelves behind her.

The chimes above the shop door sung like birds in the morning, jingling as customer after customer crowded inside. Yuki continued to fill boxes, wrapping them and punching numbers into the cash register with a satisfying click, clack, ding! She watched the customers shuffle in wearing yukatas and smiles. She wished, ever so briefly, that the shop could be that busy everyday. Maybe then her dad could hire more employees and Yuki could go out on days like Tanabata.

The sun rose high in the sky and dipped down behind the yagura fire tower in the Japanese Village Plaza, making it glow a vibrant red; the mochi behind the glass cases dwindled as day had finally turned to dusk. Yuki wiped her brow and walked out from behind the counter, passing the tanzaku wish papers on the shelf and shaking her head.

She strode to the front door, pulling out a brass key to close up the shop for the night, when a black blur shot past her legs! Chills tingled up her spine. Something furry had swiped past her. Yuki swayed and spun around. The black cat! It was running through the shop!

The black cat, its pointy ears pressed back, bolted up the counter. It slipped on the slick glass before clawing its way up onto the rung of wooden shelves. The cat leapt from creaking shelf to shelf like a pinball, searching for something. Yuki tried to scoop the cat up with her arms, but catching the cat felt like a game of kingyo-sukui during summer obon festivals. The goldfish, or in this case, the cat, always slipped from her grasp.

The cat snatched the three tanzaku in its mouth and pounced right over Yuki’s head, the papers sticking out like colorful whiskers.

“Hey, that’s mine!” Yuki cried out, running after the cat. The key to the shop door clattered to the floor as Yuki pursued the cat, leaving Usagi Mochi for the first time that day. The night sky made the black cat hard to see, but not impossible thanks to the vibrant papers in its mouth.

A wall of sound hit Yuki’s ears as she ran down the sidewalk—the taiko performance had begun. The roiling of deep drums reverberated in Yuki’s bones as she bounded forward. The long streamers flowing from the kusudama balls looked like jellyfish swimming through the wind. The cat weaved effortlessly through the sea of people and Yuki followed, albeit, less gracefully. Yuki swept the streamers away, parting them like leaves of a willow tree as she ran through the crowd.

Yuki ran beneath the yagura and spotted the cat’s black tail whip around the hem of a young boy’s jinbei. Glowing red and white lanterns lit the way as she pushed ahead, her breathing more labored with each step. The cat was just within Yuki’s reach, her wishing papers stuck in its mouth.

Takoyaki, takoyaki!” a vendor announced as he pushed a steaming metal cart through the crowd. Yuki skirted to a halt, trying to avoid colliding with the cart as she watched the cat’s tail flick out of view behind the hazy smoke of sizzling takoyaki. Yuki squeezed her way around the cart, running past the bakery where she’d pick up fresh anpan on weekends.

“Eeek!” Up ahead, Yuki saw a man selling Japangeles windbreakers jump into the air and let out a shrill shriek. So that’s where the cat went, she thought to herself, continuing to run forward. By the time she had reached the edge of the square, the man selling Japangeles merchandise had fled to Nijiya.

Where had the cat gone? Everyone around her seemed wrapped up in the Tanabata festivities, drinking matcha lattes and eating dango. Through the chatter of the crowd, Yuki heard the chiming of tiny bells atop the tree that stands in the main square. The bamboo display sprouting off of the tree was covered in tanzaku, the paper wishes blowing in the wind and spinning around on their strings.

Yuki tried to steady her breathing. She had lost the cat and the tanzaku papers. Maybe she was too old to make a wish after all. Yuki took another breath and turned to head back to the shop when something furry caught her eyes.

The cat slipped out of one of the shops near the tree. It emerged beneath the shop’s display of eternally flowing desktop rock fountains, holding a pen and the tanzaku in its mouth. The cat scurried up to the base of the bamboo wrapped tree and looked around before standing up on its hind legs. Yuki’s mouth hung agape. The cat was standing upright!

It uncapped the pen with one of its soft paws. Yuki wiped her eyes, wondering if spending too much time behind the counter could have had some delirious effects. The cat scrunched its face up with focus, scratching something out with pen onto the papers. Yuki walked cautiously around the wishing tree, ducking down behind the rock sculpture she used to climb on as a toddler. Yuki watched with wide eyes as the cat stretched up, trying to tie its wish to a shoot of bamboo.

The cat stumbled a bit and stretched itself like a baby reaching for a jar of cookies on the counter. The bamboo was just out of its reach. Yuki stood up and slowly approached the cat from behind. The cat sprung up onto the tree and finally tied the tanzaku paper around one of the bamboo branches. When the cat hopped down and landed at Yuki’s feet, with two of her tanzaku papers still in its paws, its green eyes widened.

“Do you need help?” Yuki asked, feeling ridiculous that she was talking to a cat. Everyone in the plaza was happily milling about, too wrapped up in Cafe Dulce’s donuts to notice the girl and the black cat.

The cat looked at Yuki and bolted between her feet. Yuki caught the two remaining tanzaku papers as they flew from the cat’s paws.

“Where are you going?” she called out. The cat kept running. Yuki followed behind, determined to understand where such a cat had come from, and what he could have wanted with the tanzaku papers. The cat veered to the right, glaring over its slinking shoulders and sprinting forward.

At the end of the sidewalk, a small, red torii which Yuki had never seen before glowed with a welcoming, golden light. The cat leapt beneath the torii, which began shrinking before Yuki’s eyes! In a split second decision, she leapt after the cat, making it through the vanishing gate just in time.

When Yuki awoke, she raised her arm to shield her eyes from the sun’s brilliant beams. Pain radiated through her body.

“I wasn’t sure when you’d wake up,” a voice said. Yuki turned to see who was talking to her. The black cat, his head turned sideways, poked Yuki with its paw. She scrambled backwards in shock.

“You– you can talk?” she asked.       

“I can do much more than that, thank you very much,” the cat replied, licking its paw.

Yuki shook her head. “Where–where are we?”

“We are in Littler Tokyo,” the cat said.

Little-er Tokyo?” Yuki asked.

“Naturally. The mice claimed Littlest Tokyo, and the humans, Little Tokyo and regular-size Tokyo, of course,” the cat said.

Yuki tried to get to her feet. When she did, she realized she was on First Street North, except it was as though someone had shrunken all the shops. For the first time in her life, she was taller than the door frames. Orange cats, black cats, grey cats, and cats with speckled fur prowled down the sidewalks, some stopping to stare at Yuki. Yuki hardly noticed—she was too busy looking at the miniature version of the street she’d spent most of her life on.

The Go For Broke National Education Center and the Japanese American National Museum sat at the far end of the street, although the sculpture in front of the museum resembled a ball of yarn instead of a cube. Yuki’s eyes finally rested on Fugetsu-do, where a gray cat was working behind the glass counters.

“You should probably be getting back to Little Tokyo,” the cat said. “Before it’s too late.” Yuki noticed the cats ambling up and down the sidewalk had started to stare at her.

“I can’t stay for a bit longer?” Yuki asked, fascinated with the world she had fallen into.

“Curiosity killed the cat,” the cat said to her. “I spent one of my wishes getting back to Littler Tokyo and you should spend one getting back to your home.”

Yuki looked at the remaining pink and yellow tanzaku papers in her hands.

“I’m sorry to have taken one of your wishes, but there’s no better place than a Little Tokyo of your own,” the cat said.       

Together they walked across the street, passing a Hello Kitty Meet & Greet at the Sanrio store and Mikawaya Mochi.

“As a kitten, I wished to visit Little Tokyo and I got my wish. It truly is the best, but I had to get back to help my family’s mochi shop in Littler Tokyo—I took what I had for granted. I haven’t been able to have even a piece of mochi in years, with you guys always shooing us cats away from the storefronts.”

“Sorry about that,” Yuki said, still feeling somewhat dazed.

“That’s alright, I have all the salmon flavored mochi a cat could want here,” the cat replied.

They reached the tree in the main square across from Cafe Dulce, where cats in hip outfits sat lapping up cream from metal saucers.

“I’ve lived nine lives, Yuki. You’re never too old for wishing,” the cat said, patting the grand tree.

Yuki tied her pink wish paper to the much shorter bamboo poles and a large torii appeared at the edge of the village square.

She bowed to the cat, taking one last look at Littler Tokyo, and finally stepped through the torii...

Yuki awoke to the light chiming of bells. She was back in Usagi Mochi, her face pressed against the counter. Yuki blinked, taking in the normal-sized surroundings.

Had it all been a dream? Yuki looked over to the kitchen and saw her dad shaping mochi into perfectly round treats, as usual. She thought she must have dozed off.

Yuki breathed a sigh of relief and lifted herself off the counter, where a yellow tanzaku wish paper lay crumpled beneath her hand.


*This story received honorable mention in the English Adult category of the Little Tokyo Historical Society’s 8th Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest.


© 2021 Sophiya Ichida Sweet

fiction Imagine Little Tokyo little tokyo short story contest tanabata

About this series

Each year, the Little Tokyo Historical Society’s Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest heightens awareness of Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo by challenging both new and experienced writers to write a story that showcases familiarity with the neighborhood and the people in it. Writers from three categories, Adult, Youth, and Japanese language, weave fictional stories set in the past, present, or future. On May 23, 2021 in a virtual celebration moderated by Michael Palma, noted theatre artists, Greg Watanabe, Jully Lee, and Eiji Inoue performed dramatic readings of each winning entry.


*Read stories from other Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contests:

1st Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
2nd Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
3rd Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
4th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
5th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
6th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
7th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
9th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
10th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>