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Tsukimi: The Mid-Autumn Festival in Japan

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Tsukimi, the Mid-Autumn Festival in Japan, is a cherished time of ancient traditions and celestial celebrations. This festival, known as “moon-viewing,” is when Japanese families and friends gather under the night sky to honor the full moon, believed to be at its brightest during this time. In this guide, we’ll explore Tsukimi’s origins, traditional activities, delicious foods, and renowned events that make this a magical season in Japan. Join us on a journey through the captivating world of Tsukimi, where the moon takes center stage in a delightful celebration.

Origin of Tsukimi

Tsukimi, a Japanese custom, revolves around gathering to admire the autumn moon, particularly the full moon on the 15th day of the eighth month of the lunar calendar. It’s often referred to as Otsukimi, which literally means “moon-viewing.” This tradition is closely related to the Mid-Autumn Festival, originally hailing from China and introduced to Japan during the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 AD). Initially, Tsukimi was favored among the upper class, who would come together to share poetry and music beneath the moon’s gentle glow. As time passed, it evolved into a more widespread practice, celebrating the bountiful harvest and seeking prosperity in crops.

The Tsukimi customs include adorning spaces with decorations crafted from Japanese pampas grass (known as susuki) and offering seasonal treats like rice dumplings (tsukimi dango), sweet potatoes, edamame, chestnuts, and sake to the moon. These delectable offerings are collectively known as tsukimi ryori, signifying “moon-viewing cuisine.”

Tsukimi also has a special connection with rabbits, as some individuals see a rabbit diligently pounding mochi (rice cake) in the moon’s craters. This unique tradition provides a beautiful and poetic means of appreciating the autumn moon and its significance within Japanese culture.

Japan Tsukimi Mid-autumn Festival
Japan Mid-autumn Festival - Tsukimi

How the Japanese Celebrate Tsukimi: Traditional Activities

During Tsukimi, people engage in a variety of activities to relish the occasion, including:

  • Moon Viewing: The central theme of Tsukimi is the admiration of the full moon, believed to be at its most radiant and enchanting during the autumn season. Folks gather in spots offering a clear view of the moon, like gardens, balconies, rooftops, or temples. Some even employ binoculars or telescopes for a closer look. There’s also a delightful tradition of searching for a moon-residing rabbit’s silhouette, stemming from a folklore tale in which a rabbit resides on the moon and crafts mochi (rice cakes) by pounding rice with a mortar and pestle.
  • Offerings to the Moon: To convey gratitude to the moon for the harvest, people lay out various seasonal foods and plants as offerings. The most common offering is Tsukimi dango, white rice dumplings artistically arranged in a pyramid to resemble the moon. Additional offerings might include taro, edamame, chestnuts, persimmons, grapes, pears, and sake. These culinary tributes are collectively known as Tsukimi dishes. The scene is also adorned with Japanese pampas grass (susuki), symbolizing the rice harvest and lending an elegant touch to the setting.
  • Moonlit Culture: Tsukimi provides an opportunity to engage in cultural activities celebrating the moon and the season’s mystique. Another cherished Tsukimi tradition involves the recitation or creation of poems inspired by the moon. This practice traces its roots to the Heian period, when nobles hosted sophisticated moon-viewing gatherings and exchanged waka (classical Japanese poetry) beneath the moon’s glow. In modern times, people might craft haiku (17-syllable short poems) or tanka (31-syllable short poems) to capture the moon’s essence or express their sentiments towards it. Some individuals may even serenade the moon with songs or play musical instruments as a mark of their moon celebration.
  • Enjoy dishes mirroring the moon’s appearance: Following the moon gazing and tribute offerings, it’s customary to indulge in some of the delectable Tsukimi dishes, as a way of sharing in the moon’s blessings. Among the favored Tsukimi foods are Tsukimi soba or udon, which feature noodles crowned with a raw egg, resembling the moon. Additionally, Tsukimi manju, moon-shaped steamed buns filled with sweet bean paste, are a delightful treat. Some individuals might also create their own mochi or dango at home and savor them in the company of family and friends.
Japan Mid-autumn Moon Viewing
Moon Viewing

Traditional Tsukimi Foods

Among the most favored Tsukimi treats, you’ll find:

  • Tsukimi Dango: These are moon-shaped rice dumplings, typically in pristine white, although sometimes sporting various colors and flavors. They’re arranged in a pyramid formation and tenderly offered to the moon as a token of gratitude and admiration.
  • Mochi in the shape of rabbits: These are mochi, those delightful rice cakes, meticulously shaped into adorable rabbit forms. Rooted in the legend of a moon-dwelling rabbit fashioning mochi with a wooden mallet and mortar, they often come adorned with red bean paste, sesame seeds, or other delectable embellishments.
  • Fall fruits and vegetables: This category embraces a range of fall fruits and vegetables – think sweet potatoes, chestnuts, taro, edamame, persimmons, grapes, and pears. Harvested during autumn, they symbolize nature’s generous bounty and are enjoyed or presented to the moon in homage to the season.
  • Raw egg dishes: These dishes feature raw eggs as a key element, with the egg yolk mirroring the full moon, lending a touch of lusciousness and flavor to the fare. Varieties include tsukimi soba (buckwheat noodles with raw egg), tsukimi udon (thick wheat noodles with raw egg), and tsukimi don (rice bowl with raw egg).
  • Tsukimi Burger:A more contemporary creation, the Tsukimi burger graces the scene with a hamburger crowned by a fried egg. This adaptation of traditional raw egg dishes caters to modern taste buds and is even offered by select fast-food chains in Japan during the Tsukimi season.
Japan Food Dango
Tsukimi Dango

Famous Tsukimi Events in Japan

In Japan, savoring Tsukimi offers a multitude of delightful experiences, including:

Visiting Iconic Landmarks: 

Explore renowned landmarks that provide breathtaking moonlit views, like Tokyo Tower, Tokyo Skytree, or Himeji Castle. These sites often host special events and extend Tsukimi visitor discounts. For instance, Tokyo Tower features an Otsukimi Outside Staircase Walk, allowing you to ascend the stairs to the summit and witness the brilliance of the harvest moon. Tokyo Skytree adds to the magic with a unique lighting display and live jazz music to mark the moon festival. Himeji Castle, bathed in warm illumination, presents a mesmerizing contrast between its white facade and the night sky.

Going to a Traditional Garden:

Seek out traditional gardens that cast a serene reflection of moonlight on water, such as Sankeien Garden in Yokohama or Ise Shrine in Ise. These enchanting places also offer cultural performances and Tsukimi-related activities, including poetry recitations, tea ceremonies, and lantern festivals. Sankeien Garden boasts a three-story pagoda and other historic structures that come alive with illumination during Tsukimi, and you can relish seasonal culinary delights and beverages within its tranquil grounds. Ise Shrine, one of Japan’s most sacred and ancient shrines, dedicated to the sun goddess Amaterasu, provides a serene setting for Tsukimi. As the moon’s glow shimmers on the pond, you can partake in prayers and poetic offerings to the moon alongside the local community.

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