A sign that autumn has arrived is the celebration of Otsukimi or moon viewing. Although not as popular as cherry blossoms and fall foliage moon viewing is a popular seasonal activity to enjoy in September and early October. The best date for 2020 will be Sunday, October 4th if the sky is clear. This Otsukimi post was written by my good friend Efrot Weiss. She is a long-term resident of Japan, and intercultural trainer and coach. Laugh, Learn & Live!
Otsukimi Moon Viewing by Efrot Weiss – Cultural Insights
Whether you believe the moon’s chief resident is a man or a rabbit, September in Japan is about gazing at the heavens.
During full moons in the late sultry summers of ancient Kyoto, the emperor and members of his court would laze about in small boats in the palace ponds, gazing at the night sky.
Influenced by Chinese custom, members of the Heian court (794–1185) would compose and write poetry, listen to music and imbibe on sweets and drinks while peering at the harvest moon, whose singular brightness resulted from its alignment with the sun and Earth, coupled with the waning humidity of late summer.
During the Edo era (1603–1868), moon viewing became a widespread practice among samurai and townspeople, and also served as a harvest festival.
As the traditional Japanese calendar was based on the lunar calendar, daily life was inextricably linked to the phases of the moon. Observing the color, shape and position of the moon enabled farmers to predict weather, harvests and even fishing yields. They were able to work in their fields until late at night because of the moonlight.
The night of the 15th day of the eighth month in the lunar calendar was when the moon was considered especially beautiful, and this annual occurrence inspired the Japanese the moon-viewing festival, or otsukimi, which this year falls on September 8.
Offerings to the moon consist of a stack of 15 plain, moon-shaped dango rice dumplings, pampas grass, which resembles rice stalks, and seasonal produce. If the treats are pilfered by children, it is attributed to the gods and regarded as a harbinger of a plentiful harvest.
“When my parents lived in a Japanese-style house with a garden, we could appreciate the moon viewing. They decorated the tokonoma [alcove] with susuki [pampas grass] and other autumn flowers, an appropriate scroll and otsukimi dango,” recalls my friend Chiharu Lorenzoni. “We sat in the engawa [veranda] to gaze at the moon. My mother told us stories about the rabbit in the moon while we enjoyed tea and otsumiki dango.”
The Japanese fascination with the moon has served as an inspiration in the arts. The moon is a common motif in Japanese woodblock prints, screens, lacquerware, poetry and literature, including Sei Shonagan’s ancient classic The Pillow Book. There are at least 14 Japanese words describing the different phases of the moon. There are even words to describe the occasions in which the moon is not visible on this otsukimi night, such as mugetsu (no moon) and ugetsu (rain moon).
Moon viewing has also inspired architecture and garden planning. Both Matsumoto Castle and Okayama Castle, for example, have purpose-built, moon-viewing pavilions.
Kyoto’s Katsura Imperial Villa is regarded as a moon-viewing palace. Built in the 17th-century in the area where Heian nobility wrote their lunar-inspired poetry, it contains numerous moon-gazing vantage points. Even rooms are located in a specific position and height to provide the best view of the harvest moon. And a moon-viewing balcony highlights the moonrise.
Luckily, you don’t need to be royalty to admire a full moon.
First published in the September 2014 issue of Tokyo American Club’s monthly magazine, iNTOUCH.
Otsukimi Moon Viewing
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