The Japanese have a special affinity for the moon that can be seen in their literature through the ages. From ancient times right up to present day it has captured the hearts of Zen monks, poets and writers. The oldest Japanese folk tale is the Taketori Monogatari, which is the story of a princess from the moon.
Though a popular symbol for autumn, the moon is revered throughout the year here. Not only the full moon but any of its waxing or waning forms! However for O-tsukimi, literally moon viewing, it is the autumn moon. With summer’s oppressive humidity finally starting to give up it’s stranglehold on Kyoto, the crisp air of autumn starts making its presence known. The moon appears larger and clearer in the sky and the coolness of the evening makes it ideal to sit outside and take in its splendor over the surrounding hills of Kyoto.
Like so many other things the tradition of O-tsukimi was introduced from China in the Nara and Heian periods. The court nobles would lounge around viewing the moon and writing poems (and of course drink sake… this was way before beer!). From the Edo Period it gained popularity among the farmers who would make offerings to the moon for a bountiful harvest. (They would probably drink sake too!)
O-tsukimi is a popular theme for tea gatherings around this time of year. The utensils and sweets used will reflect the items associated with the event that suggests the moon, usually the Chushu no Meigetsu August Moon Viewing. By the way, don’t be surprised if it’s held in September: think lunar calendar.
Many households put up displays with rabbits, pampas grass, bush clover and a pyramid of round sweet dumplings, Tsukimi dango. Some restaurants offer dishes that bring to mind the full moon. Tsukimi udon (above, with moon) and MacDonald’s famous (infamous?) Tsukimi burger (pictured left, with rabbits) to name but a couple.
One of the many Zen phrases I have a particular fondness for is seifu meigetsu harau 清風払明月 It refers to the pure wind blowing the clouds to reveal the Harvest Moon. One night on my way back from Nashinoki Shrine the wind did exactly that! The scroll that was hanging in the tearoom was one with that Zen phrase!
If you are wondering about the rabbits… in Japan they don’t see a ‘Man in the Moon’ or Swiss cheese, they see a rabbit pounding mochi glutinous rice. Can you see it?