Otsukimi is also known throughout Japan as Jugoya and Tsukimi, it literally means moon-viewing and is a festival to honor the autumn moon. It is a celebration of the full moon on the 15th day of the eighth month on the Japanese traditional calendar, a variant of the Mid-Autumn Festival. It is usually celebrated during September or October.
This is a Japanese tradition that dates back to the Heian era that ruled Japan from 794 until 1185. Otsukimi is now so popular that people will continue with the same celebrations over several evenings once the full moon has made its appearance in the middle of the eighth month of the traditional calendar.
Gifts and Offerings
The traditions of this festival include decorations on display that are made from susuki or Japanese pampas grass as well as the eating of rice dumplings that are known as Tsukimi dango that are made to celebrate the moon’s beauty. Offerings are also made to the moon in the form of displays of seasonal produce. While sweet potatoes are made as offering gifts to the full moon, beans and chestnuts are offered during the following month which is known as the waxing moon.
There are some alternative names to these celebrations during the waxing moon. Imomeigetsu, literally means potato harvest moon while Mamemeigetsu’s literal meaning is bean harvest moon. Chestnut harvest moon is the literal meaning of Kurimeigetsu.
Historical Importance of the Festival
The festival has a strong tradition within Japanese society for holding parties during the harvest moon. This custom is believed to have originated through the Japanese aristocracy, at sometime during the Heian era of 794 until 1185. Aristocratic members of Japanese society would gather under the full moon during the eighth month of the solar calendar to recite poetry. Since ancient times the full moon during the eighth solar month was regarded by the Japanese people as the ‘Mid Autumn Moon.’ It was considered to be the best time to observe the moon. This was due to the relative positions of the moon, sun, and the earth, making the moon appear to be especially bright at this time of year.
Japanese tradition means it is usual to gather on the evening of the full moon in a place where you can clearly see the moon. The gathering place should be decorated with Japanese pampas grass and white rice dumplings (Tsukimi dango) should be served along with taro, chestnuts, edamame, together with other seasonal foods. Sake should also be traditionally offered on this festival in the hope of achieving an abundant harvest. These dishes are collectively known as Tsukimi dishes or Tsukimi ryori. In some regions of Japan this festival is usually referred to as Imomeigetsu or Potato harvest moon due to the abundance of the crop of sweet potatoes found along with taro in those regions.
Alignment with the calendar
The Japanese calendar was organized from 862 through to 1683 so the full moon was on the 13th day of each month. In 1684, there were adjustments made to the calendar so the new moon fell on the first day of each month, which in turn moved the full moon to the 15th day of each month. In Edo, what is now Tokyo, some people moved their festivities to the 15th day of the month while for others they continued on the 13th. There were also other regional variations with some areas celebrating on the 17th day of the month. In addition to this there were Buddhist observances held on the 23rd and 26th days of the month which contributed to several days of possible late night parties during this season during the Edo period of Japanese history. The custom of holding several nights of parties was swiftly ended during the Meiji era that ruled Japan from 1868 until 1912.
Activities during the moon festivals
As written earlier, there is a long history in Japan of having festivals that are dedicated to worshipping the moon. During the Heian era of 794 until 1185 some elements of the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival had been introduced into Japan. Moon viewing events would be conducted on boats on the water by the Japanese aristocracy so they could watch the reflection of the moon on the water’s surface. Writing tanka poetry was seen as being a crucial element that had to be written during the mid-autumn moon viewing festival.
Alternative names related to the weather
In Japan there are specific names given to the festival that are used to describe the weather during the years that the moon is not visible on the evening of the Otsukimi festival. Mugetsu literally means no-moon such as when it is a cloudy or overcast evening while Ugetsu means rain-moon on those occasions when the festival is met with a sky of rain. On these occasions when the moon is not visible the parties continue and in today’s modern society there is even an emoji that has been created for this festival. This emoji features dango, pampas grass and of course, the moon.
Food related to the Otsukimi Festival
Traditionally the foods that are served during the Otsukimi festival are mostly seasonal foods although there are a few foods that are particularly associated with this festival. Tsukimi soba or Tsukimi udon is made from soba or udon noodles which once cooked in boiling water they are topped with nori and a raw egg. This is then covered with a lightly flavored broth. In Kitakyushu, yaki udon is served with an egg and known locally as Tenmado. Tenmado is also the local name for the festival when spoken in the regions dialect. Another food associated with the Otsukimi Festival is a raw quail’s egg placed on top of sushi, similar to battleship sushi that is known as gunkanzushi or a handrolled temaki. During the festival period it is known as Tsukimi style sushi. Other confectionery or snack items such as mooncakes are also popular and enjoyed during this festival period. Not a traditional food, more a modern introduction has seen the invention of Tsukimi burgers at some of Japan’s fast food restaurants. This food is offered on the fall menu during the months of September and October, the Tsikimi burger is just a fried egg sandwich.