The Tsukimi or Otsukimi – literally meaning “moon-viewing” – refers to the Japanese festival of honouring the autumn moon. When the festival was introduced to Japan from China about 1,000 years ago, the custom of appreciating the moon while holding a party formed, appropriately known as “the Moon Appreciation Party”.
Although the Chinese lunar calendar is not used in Japan anymore, the custom of moon appreciation is followed in many places around the country. The Japanese also celebrate the Moon festival on the 15th of the 8th month of the Chinese lunar calendar.
Festivals dedicated to the moon have a long history in Japan. Elements of the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival were introduced to Japan during the Heian period. The custom is thought to have originated with Japanese aristocrats during the Heian period, who would gather to recite poetry under the full moon of the eighth month of the solar calendar, known as the “Mid-Autumn Moon”. Members of the aristocratic class would hold moon-viewing events aboard boats in order to view the moon’s reflection on the surface of the water.
Since ancient times, the Japanese have described the eighth solar month as the best time for looking at the moon, since the relative positions of the earth, sun, and moon cause the moon to appear especially bright. On the evening of the full moon, it is traditional to gather in a place where the moon can be seen clearly, decorate the scene with Japanese pampas grass, and to serve white rice dumplings (known as Tsukimi dango), taro, Edamame (soy beans), chestnuts, and other seasonal foods, plus the traditional rice wine Sake as offerings to the moon in order to pray for an abundant harvest. These dishes are known collectively as Tsukimi dishes.
The festival of ‘O-tsukimi’ is the moon viewing festival based on the Japanese Folk Tale of ‘The rabbit in the Moon’. This folktale is the reason Japanese people believe that rabbits lived on the moon. Even today in Japan, the moon is pictured with the scene of a rabbit or rabbits making Mochi (pounded rice cakes).
During this time the moon has a special name ‘Chuushuu-no-meigetsu’, which in English means ‘the picturesque moon of mid-autumn’.
The story of ‘The rabbit in the Moon’ is strongly associated with Buddhist culture and there are many versions of this legend. In the most popular version in Japan, the story is about the Old Man of the Moon, who one day looked down into a big forest on Earth and saw three friends sitting together around a fire. These three friends were a rabbit, a monkey, and a fox. Deciding to find out which of the three is the kindest, the man goes down to Earth and changes himself into a beggar. He asks the three friends to help him as he is very hungry. On hearing this they all run off to find him some food. The monkey brings back a lot of fruit while the fox brings back a big fish.
The rabbit, however, is unable to find any food for the man, and so asks the monkey to gather some firewood and the fox to build a big fire with the wood. Once the fire burned bright, the rabbit explained to the beggar that he didn’t have anything to give him, so he would put himself in the fire and when he is cooked the beggar could eat him. Just before the rabbit jumped into the fire the beggar turned back into the Old Man of the Moon and told the rabbit that he was very kind, and that he shouldn’t do anything to harm himself. Because he decides that the rabbit is the kindest of the three, he takes him back to the moon to live with him and that’s how the legend of the rabbit on the moon came to be.
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