Celebrate: Tsukimi (Moon-Viewing)

Apologies for two Celebrate posts in a row but this week is just jam-packed with holidays, it seems. 🙂 

The moon comes up every night like clockwork, but tomorrow’s moon is just a little more special. This year, September 19th marks the night of the harvest moon, an occasion that prompts moon-viewing parties throughout the nation.

Tsukimi, or moon-viewing, is a practice that originated in China and came to Japan sometime in the early Heian Period (794-1185). It is thought that the waning humidity and the crisp air of early fall is the perfect time to witness the glories of this celestial body. There’s not a whole lot more to tsukimi that the name implies – in years past, court nobles would gather together (often in a tea house or purpose-built moon-viewing pavilion like the one at Matsumoto Castle) and compose lyrical poems while admiring the first of autumn’s moons. At home, people would (and some still do) set up altars in a room where the moon will be visible. My husband’s colleagues held a tsukimi party last year on the roof of their workplace. So anything goes.

You can see Matsumoto Castle's moon-viewing pavilion on the far right (with the red porch)
You can see Matsumoto Castle’s moon-viewing pavilion on the far right (with the red porch)

The Western World (or at least Americans) often refer to a “man in the moon”, his face formed from the moon’s various geological features. The Japanese, on the other hand, claim to see a rabbit pounding rice cakes when they view the moon. An old Japanese folktale recounts that the moon was once inhabited by a very old man. He came down to Earth one day and presented himself in disguise as a beggar to three animals he had seen, in hopes of deciding who was the kindest. He asked them each to bring him some food. The monkey and the fox brought back fruit and a fish, respectively. The rabbit, however, couldn’t find any food so he gathered some firewood to build a fire and offered himself for the old man’s stew pot. The old man proclaimed him the kindest of all and, as a reward, brought him back to live with him on the moon.

See the rabbit making mochi? (Photo Source: muza-chan.net)
See the rabbit making mochi? (Photo Source: muza-chan.net)

As with any Japanese festival, food plays a major role. While Heian-era nobles supped on sizable banquets, today’s Tsukimi celebrants include at least the following foods in their feast:

  • Tsukimi Dango – These round white dumplings made of pounded rice are said to represent the full moon itself. They also have a connection with that mochi-making rabbit. 
  • Chestnuts and Taro root (sato-imo) – Both of these foods are in their peak season in autumn and were also used in years past to make offerings to the moon in hopes for an abundant harvest. In some parts of Japan, Tsukimi is still known by the alternate names of “potato harvest moon” or “chestnut harvest moon”.
  • Tsukimi Udon or Tsukimi Soba – These foods aren’t exactly eaten for Tsukimi, but they have a connection to this festival and the full moon. In both dishes, the noodles are served with grated taro and come accompanied by the yolk of an egg, whose roundness is suggestive of the moon.

It’s supposed to be a beautifully clear night here in southern Japan tomorrow. Now to track down some dumplings … 🙂 Happy autumn everyone!

2 thoughts on “Celebrate: Tsukimi (Moon-Viewing)

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  1. Saratoga Sister City organization is planning a moon viewing on 9-25-14 at Hakone Gardens. We are trying to find a speaker who can present topics relevant to moon viewing. Can You help??? Thanks, Jim Philbrick

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