The singing of cicadas is fading away and now we hear more of the droning sound of crickets at night in Japan. Autumn is here! Autumn has come to our online store as well, and you may find some newly added items that are perfect for Tsukimi: the annual moon-viewing festivity that’s coming up in a couple of weeks.
In this article, we would like to take this opportunity to explain the tradition and custom of Tsukimi in Japan, while introducing some of our recommended items for the festival.
What kind of festival is Tsukimi?
Tsukimi generally refers to Jūgoya (Jūgo means 15, Ya means night), the 15th night of the 8th month of the lunar calendar. This year, Jūgoya falls on 21st September 2021, in solar or Gregorian calendar. It is an event to give thanks to the autumn harvest while watching the beautiful moon, and it is also known as mid-autumn festival in China, or harvest moon in Western countries.
Teruhide Kato's "Autumn: 15th Day of 8th Lunar Month" is a woodblock print expressing Jūgoya night. A beautiful moon shines over the grand staircase reminiscent of Fushimi Momoyama Tomb in Kyoto.
Tsukimi is said to have been introduced to Japan from China in the mid-9th century. After its arrival, it quickly became popular among the aristocracy of the Heian Period (794-1185), and they began to hold parties to enjoy the elegance of the season. In those days, they didn’t actually look up at the sky, but rather admired the reflection of the moon on the surface of water in the Sake cups, while listening to poetry and music on a boat.
"Sakasatsuki" Sake cup series express the moon changing its shape as it waxes and wanes. The moon painted in gold over black or vermillion lacquer represents the upside-down moon as seen by the Heian aristocrats.
In the Edo period (1603-1868), moon-viewing gradually spread among the common people. Since rice harvesting begins around the time of the 15th night, people started to give offerings to the moon, to give thanks for the autumn harvest. The custom to give offerings was established around that time, and it has been continued to this day ever since.
How do the Japanese celebrate Tsukimi?
On the 15th night, we place offerings on the porch, balcony, or any place where we can see the moon. The main offerings are Tsukimi Dango, boiled rice flour dumpling balls which symbolize the round moon, and they are accompanied by a vase of Susuki grass, early blossoming field grass which is displayed to substitute for rice plants. In addition, just-harvested autumn vegetables / fruits are often offered together, such as taro, sweet potatoes, persimmons, pears, grapes etc.
Since it is a festival celebrating the harvest, eating is an important part of the event. Needless to say, we eat Tsukimi Dango on the night of the 15th, but for Tsukimi dinner, some people eat Tsukimi Udon / Soba noodles with a poached egg, which represents the moon, as well as various other dishes made from harvested potatoes and vegetables.
Here is a set of chopsticks with the moon decoration perfect for Tsukimi dinner. They will add a gorgeous feel to any food served with them.
Furthermore, it is still an event for Japanese people to enjoy the elegance of the season, so many people still enjoy drinking Sake while watching the beautiful moon, the Heian aristocracy style.
These Kiyomizu ware cups will light up your Sake with the gold and silver leaf when you drink by the balcony to look at the moon.
What do you see in the moon?
Since ancient times, people around the world have looked at the moon in various ways and have had imaginations on its mysterious shadows / craters. In some Western countries, people see the man in the moon, which derives from Christian tradition. In the birthplace of the moon-viewing, China, people see a rabbit in the moon that is grinding medicinal herbs. Similarly, in Japan people look at the shadows as a rabbit, but here the rabbit is making rice cakes with a mortar. Although it is unclear when this myth started to go around, it is said that it’s based on a Buddhist folklore of a rabbit’s legend.
The folklore follows:
“Once upon a time, there was a rabbit, a fox, and a monkey. One day, they met an old man who begged for food, so the three gathered food for him. The monkey brought him nuts, the fox brought him fish, but the rabbit, despite his best efforts, could not bring him anything. The rabbit was so distressed that he jumped into the fire and offered his body to the old man, saying, ‘Please eat me.’ In fact, the old man was a god named Taishakuten who wanted to test their actions. Taishakuten admired the rabbit’s dedication and brought him back to life in the moon to set an example for everyone.”
So why is the moon rabbit making rice cakes? There are many theories, but one theory says that the rabbit is making rice cakes for the old man / Taishakuten, but it could have also been combined with the original Chinese interpretation and the custom of celebrating the rice harvesting season in Japan. Although only a few may know about this legend, many Japanese have been told since childhood that there is a rabbit in the moon, and for children, Tsukimi is the night to eat Tsukimi Dango and look at the hardworking rabbit making rice cakes for everyone.
Celebrate Tsukimi in your own way!
In sum, we have shared with you the tradition of Tsukimi in Japan in this article. You have learned that, for the Japanese, the staple food, rice, plays a particularly important role in all aspects of the moon-viewing celebration. People have been celebrating it by having Tsukimi Dango and Sake, both of which are made from rice, and even the Japanese tale of rabbit is making rice cakes in the moon.
The Japanese are originally an agricultural people and historically did not eat meat, but in a sense, Tsukimi could be called Japan's Thanksgiving Day. However, even if interpreted differently, the way we give thanks for the autumn harvest or the way we feel for the beauty of the moon is the same anywhere in the world, isn’t it?
Again, Teruhide Kato's woodblock "Feeling of the Autumn" simply expresses the autumn moon, telling us the beauty of it never changes over time.
This year's 15th night is a full moon. It might still be difficult to go out freely for dinner because of Corona, but we hope you take this opportunity to enjoy a delicious meal at home while looking at the beautiful round moon. You don’t have to follow the Japanese tradition and make complete Tsukimi dishes, but what’s important is to enjoy meal and the moon-viewing your own way! Lastly, don’t forget to check out the recommended items for the season introduced in this article. They will surely brighten up your Tsukimi night. Thank you very much for reading.