Tsukimi (月見), or O-tsukimi, which is translated as ‘moon-viewing’, is the Japanese custom of honouring the autumn moon. This celebration usually takes place on the fifteenth day of the eighth month of the traditional Japanese lunar calendar. This is known as jugoya (full moon night) or chushu no meigetsu (beautiful mid-autumn moon). The moon isn’t always full on this night, but the autumn air is very clear and the sun, moon and earth are in optimal positions to make the moon appear at its brightest. Thus, autumn is considered the best season to observe the moon. In the modern-day calendar, the date usually falls in September. This year’s tsukimidate falls on September 12.
Moon festivals have a long history in Japan, originating as a celebration of a bountiful harvest by farmers. In the Heian period, the custom of viewing the moon, an element of autumn festivals in China, was introduced to Japan. It wasn’t long before Japanese aristocrats were lounging about on boats viewing the moon, in order to catch the moon’s reflection in the water, and composing impromptu poetry.
Tsukimi is the counterpart of spring’s hanami (花見), or ‘cherry blossom viewing’ parties. However, the festivals are celebrated quite differently. Hanami, with its tradition of picnicking and drinking in large public gatherings under blooming cherry trees in March and April, has the reputation of being quite boisterous. Tsukimi is much more quiet and contemplative. Apparently, this was not always the case: people in the Edo period used tsukimi as a pretext for partying late into the night in the autumn, a custom which was ended in the Meiji era.
Tsukimi is celebrated in a small gathering, in a place where the moon can be seen clearly. Sitting on the engawa (porch) of a traditional home, or in a garden, is ideal. Elegant plumes of susuki (pampas grass) and other autumn plants are displayed as an offering to the moon in thanks for the harvest. Folklore suggests that if you hang susuki under your eaves after the moon-viewing festival, you won’t get sick throughout the year.
Like many Japanese festivals, tsukimi has special foods associated with it. It’s traditional to serve tsukimi–dango and seasonal produce offerings during tsukimi. Tsukimi-dango are moon-shaped, white rice dumplings which are piled in a small pyramid on an altar at tsukimi in order to give thanks for a good harvest. Other seasonal offerings include satoimo (taro potatoes), edamame, and chestnuts, plus sake. These dishes are known as tsukimi-ryori (‘moon-viewing dishes’).
Satoimo, or taro, is a root vegetable associated with moon viewing, because it is harvested in autumn. It was introduced to Japan from China and became a regular part of the Japanese diet. In China, the custom of viewing the moon was originally part of a satoimo harvest festival. Therefore, the tradition of offering satoimo to the moon is known as imomeigetsu (‘potato harvest moon’) in some parts of Japan.
Although not specifically eaten at moon-viewing ceremonies, tsukimi-soba and tsukimi-udon, among other dishes, bear the name because these noodles in broth are topped with an egg which resembles the full moon floating in the night sky.
At some fast food restaurants in Japan, such as McDonald’s. a special menu is offered in the fall featuring fried or poached egg sandwiches known as Tsukimi burgers.
The Moon Rabbit
On a related note, the moon and rabbits have an ancient connection. Whereas, when we look on the face of the full moon, we fancy we see a human face gaping back at us, in Japanese folklore the image on the moon is believed to be that of the Moon Rabbit, making mochi (rice cakes) in the traditional way using a huge mortar and a mallet.
A children’s song about rabbits, taught to me long ago by my first Japanese friend, goes like this: usagi usagi, nani mite haneru? jugoya o-tsuki sama mite haneru. (“Rabbits, rabbits, what are you looking at and dancing? It must be looking at the full moon that makes you dance.”) It’s well-known throughout Japan, so ask your friends, fellow teachers or even your youngest students to teach the tune to you!