Every September, stores and restaurants across Japan explode with rabbit, dango, and susuki (Japanese pampas grass) decorations to celebrate Tsukimi, Japan’s moon-viewing festival. Held on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month (September 29th in 2023), Tsukimi heralds the beginning of autumn, a season of transition and reflection. Join us as we dive into one of Japan’s oldest traditions.
Rituals and Reflections: Tsukimi Across History
Tsukimi is believed to have its origins in the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival, a harvest festival that became a permanent annual festival during the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD). While the Heian period (794-1185 AD) marked the strengthening of Japan’s cultural identity, much of the Japanese aristocracy was still influenced by Chinese traditions. During Tsukimi, the Heian aristocrats and poets would often hold moon-viewing parties aboard boats, where they would compose poetry, appreciate the moon’s beauty reflected in the water, and serve white rice dumplings (called Tsukimi dango) and sake as offerings to the moon, praying for abundant harvests. Tsukimi would be a cultural highlight, as well as a wonderful reason for drink and merriment, for many centuries to come.
The Mammal in the Moon
One notable characteristic of Tsukimi, particularly in modern Japan, is the prevalence of rabbits. While many Western countries know of “The Man in the Moon,” in Japan and other Asian countries, the shadows and craters on the moon are said to resemble a rabbit pounding mochi, traditional Japanese rice cakes.
According to Japanese folklore, the god of the moon came down to earth transformed as a beggar, and encountered a rabbit who, having nothing else to give, generously offered to jump into a fire and sacrifice itself to provide food for the "beggar". Touched by this kindness, the god took the rabbit back with him to the moon where it lives today, pounding rice to make mochi!
Even today, rabbits are a beloved motif in Japan because they symbolize good fortune, cleverness and advancement (and unsurprisingly, fertility!) And, of course, they're just so darn cute. This is the main reason why you’ll see plenty of adorable rabbit and moon themed decorations, desserts, and goods on offer in September in Japan. This year (2023) is also particularly bountiful for bunny goods, as it happens to be the Year of the Rabbit in the Chinese Zodiac calendar, which is also observed in Japan.
Modern Day Tsukimi: Moons, Mochi, and… McDonald’s?
While lavish boat parties filled with feasts, poetry recitals, and waterfalls of sake aren’t quite as in vogue these days, you can still enjoy a traditional Tsukimi experience in many areas across Japan. Here in Kyoto, many temples and shrines open their doors for several nights during Tsukimi, with plenty of traditional performances and ceremonies to see. Some, such as Daikakuji Temple and Chishaku-in Temple, even offer private tea ceremonies and boat rides, if you’re able to snag a reservation to these popular events!
At home, many Japanese families make a traditional display of dango, easy-to-make rice dumplings displayed on a dark plate in a pyramid, sometimes with a singular orange dango on top to represent the full moon. These are often displayed alongside fluffy pampas grass or other autumnal plants.These are a great way to get into the Tsukimi spirit at home, as dango is quite tasty, and super easy to make, only requiring 2 ingredients! Water, and dango flour!
One of the most interesting developments in Tsukimi, and in fact probably the most well-known in current Japan, is the proliferation of Tsukimi themed limited time food! Most major Japanese fast-food chains offer some variation of the Tsukimi Burger, topped with fried eggs, another food said to resemble the full moon. McDonald’s originally tried out the Tsukimi Burger all the way back in 1991, and it’s been one of their most popular seasonal burgers ever since. Not wanting to be outdone, plenty of other fast-food chains have followed suit over the years, such as KFC, Wendy’s, and several Japan-only chains such as Lotteria and Komeda Coffee. This year features not only burgers, but chicken sandwiches, and dessert options!
Tsukimi's Everlasting Glow
As our exploration of Tsukimi wanes, we've journeyed through its rich history, learned the myth of the rabbit making mochi on the moon, and dug into some modern traditions like the Tsukimi burger. This festival, with its ancient roots, continues to influence modern tastes and traditions, showcasing how old and new often coexist in modern Japan. So as we take our last bite of that decadent, yolky burger and reflect on the changing of the seasons, let's appreciate Tsukimi for what it is: a timeless celebration that connects generations under the glow of the harvest moon. 🎑