Tsukimi (月見), The Season of Moon Viewing

Tsukimi (月見), The Season of Moon Viewing

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Tsukimi, the season of moon viewing, starts next week in Japan. Learn more about this day's origins, how to make Tsukimi Dumplings, and why the rabbit in the moon is pounding a rice cake.

September in Japan sees the official start of the season known as tsukimi (月見), or “moon viewing” – one among many beloved holidays in Japan.

Historically, tsukimi is associated with the day called juugoya (十五夜) or “full moon viewing”. In the historical calendar, this date fell on August 15th (juugoya literally means “night of the 15th”). It changes by year in the Gregorian calendar; this year, it’s set for September 21st.

A Chinese tradition by origin, it’s said that the historical purpose of juugoya is to give thanks to the gods for a bountiful autumn harvest while appreciating the beauty of the moon. Juuyoga is also known as imomeigetsu (芋名月), or “the month of potatoes”; this is in recognition of the importance of giving thanks for the year’s bountiful crop.

Juugoya is succeeded by jusanya (十三夜, “night of the 13th”), which this year falls on October 18th. Jusanya was said to be as important as Jugoya in older times, with the legend being that only seeing the moon on a single night would bring ill-fortune. While Jugoya is of Chinese origin, Jusanya appears uniquely Japanese. The night marks thanks for the harvesting of nuts and beans.

Many Moons, Many Nights

Finally, the last night of moon viewing is a little special. Tokaya (十日夜), or “10th night,” is actually a celebration meant to give thanks to the gods of the rice fields, and to send them on their way for the season. It’s officially celebrated on November 14th; however, since it doesn’t have a direct relationship with moon-viewing, some areas celebrate it on November 10th. The manner of celebrating Tokaya differs by area, but the most common practice has been erecting a scarecrow (カカシ; kakashi) and viewing the moon alongside it. Other customs include giving children sticks to beat the ground and chase away gophers; the ground beating also serves to encourage the gods of the fields to be on their way, their work being done for the season.

These customs have generally fallen out of practice in modern times. These days, Tokaya is used by some as another excuse to simply view the moon. The holiday is also traditionally a regional one; historically, Tokaya was primarily celebrated only in eastern Japan. Meanwhile, a similar festival, Inoko (亥の子), is celebrated in October in western Japan [1].


When the Moon Hits Your Eye Like Big Dango Pie

The traditional food of tsukimi is tsukimi dango (月見団子), or “tsukimi dumplings”. Tsukimi dango date back to the Edo era of Japan, and were originally intended to honor that year’s harvest by incorporating the harvested wheat into delicious food. In this case, the number of confectionaries matters. Some reports have it that you should stack up 12 tsukimi dango on a plate in a regular year (or 13 in a leap year). Meanwhile, other traditions hold that you should stack 15 on a plate in celebration of Jugoya and 13 for Jusanya. Tsukimi dango can be eaten with a variety of accompaniments, including sugar and soy sauce, red bean paste and flour, and miso soup, as well as pickled vegetables.

Want to make your own tsukimi dango? Miyuki Suyari has an English language recipe on Japanese site Cookpad that sounds downright delicious.

Tukimi Dango (Moon Viewing Dumpling) Recipe by Miyuki Suyari

Great recipe for Tukimi Dango (Moon Viewing Dumpling). This is a traditional mochi dumplings that are eaten during the Moon Viewing Festival. They are piled in a pyramid shape rather than the usual skewered style.

(EN) Link: Tukimi Dango (Moon Viewing Dumpling)

If you’re willing to brave the horrors of automated translation, you can also attempt the top-rated recipe for tsukimi dango on the Japanese side of Cookpad.

(JP) Link: Easy! Springy Tsukimi Dango Made with Non-Glutinous Rice Flour

Moon Season, Rabbit Season

Besides tsukimi dango, the symbol of this time of year is the traditional symbol of the moon, the rabbit.

(Picture: ペロリ / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

The existence of a rabbit in the moon is an old Asian legend, dating back to a story of the Buddha. In this tale, a rabbit, a fox, and a monkey happened across an old man begging for food. Wanting to help him out, the three animals decided to fetch him something to eat. The monkey brought back fruit from a tree, and the fox brought fish. But the rabbit, who couldn’t find anything no matter how hard he looked, told the old man, “Please eat me”, and jumped into the fire to cook himself. It occurs that this trial was actually a test by the Hindu god Indra (Japanese: taishakuten; 帝釈天), who, in honor of his selfless sacrifice, caused the rabbit to be reborn into the moon [2].

In China, the rabbit in the moon was said to be holding a hammer that he used to create medicine that granted eternal life. The figure has morphed a little in Japanese culture, and the rabbit is now described as “pounding a rice cake” (餅つき). Indeed, the original word for a full moon in Japanese was a homonym of “rice cake-pounding” – 望月 (mochitsuki) – making this an easy linguistic gag. Other explanations for the rabbit’s labor have it that the poor moon-rabbit is making more food to give to the old man; alternatively, he’s making his own food so he never has to worry about finding food again.

The rabbit who lives in the moon making mochi cakes - a traditional story highly associated with Tsukimi.
(Picture: UDON-CO / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

National Foundation Day: Japan’s Forgotten Holiday


[1] お月見とは?2021年はいつ?十五夜だけじゃない3つの月見. https://allabout.co.jp/gm/gc/426590/

[2] https://matome.naver.jp/odai/2140773258741743401 (Link no longer active)

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Jay Allen

Jay is a resident of Tokyo where he works as a reporter for Unseen Japan and as a technial writer. A lifelong geek, wordsmith, and language fanatic, he has level N1 certification in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) and is fervently working on his Kanji Kentei Level 2 certification.

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