Mochibana at Hakusa Sanso, Shoji screen at Ginkakuji, © Risa Sekiguchi, 2009

O-tsukimi, Japan's Harvest Moon Festival

You’re in a roji (“dewy path”, a small Japanese tea garden) on your way to your friend’s tea house. As you mindfully step on granite stones freshly splashed with water for your arrival, you notice that the stone lanterns, lit for the evening, are shining a little more brightly than usual. You peer inside of one of them, and notice an extra candle.

However, as you round a bamboo fence, the tiny and simple thatched roof teahouse comes into view, and you notice that the windows are dark, and find this a just a little odd. The tea house roof is so low that you have to lower your head as you enter the genkan. Despite your quiet arrival, your host welcomes you, opening the small shoji door for you to enter the four mat tearoom. In the dim natural light, you see the tokonoma, where a scroll painting of a moon, barley visible against the palest grey sky, and a bold arrangement of pampas grass and autumn flowers are displayed. It’s grown chilly in recent days, so you’re happy when your host invites you to sit close to the coals as he prepares the kettle for tea.

The light begins to grow brighter to the east, and you look out of the open shoji doors to see the moon, barely visible at first, rising past the trees in the distance. The sky is cloudless and the air, clear, rendering the outline of the moon in crisp detail. As the moon appears, impossibly huge and dazzling orange, you take a deep breath and your heart fills with joy. As the moon scatters golden reflections on the garden pond below, you watch, speechless, as it rises, past the sweeping branches of the pines.

It’s o-tsukimi, the harvest moon festival, and this is the ideal setting in which to celebrate it. While few Japanese are lucky enough to have tearooms, let alone a pond with a view to the east, this ancient festival is meant to celebrate the beauty of the moon, and the fall harvest. At most homes, it’s celebrated in a much more humble manner. Autumn flowers and susuki (pampas grass, which is at its tallest and most beautiful at this time), are displayed, and kabocha (pumpkin), chestnuts, satoimo (taro potato) and tsukimi dango (small white rice dumplings, piled high on a tray), are offered to the moon in the family alter. The dumplings were traditionally thought to bring happiness and good health, and the offering is not only for the moon’s beauty, but an expression of gratitude for the autumn harvest.

The festival is said to date back to the Nara period (710-794), when it was introduced from China, where it was (and still is) one of it’s most important festivals, but really took hold during the Heian era (794-1185, where it was among a handful of seasonal celebrations of the beauty of nature. Court nobles celebrated O-tsukimi by indulging in banquets, music and composing poems dedicated to the moon. Today, O-tsukimi is also celebrated at temples and shrines, such as the Shimogamo shrine in Kyoto, where dances are performed in Heian-era dress to period music.

While technically celebrated on jugoya, the 15 night of the solar calendar, when the moon isn’t always full, I plan to celebrate it during its greatest moment of beauty, which falls this weekend, on October 3 and 4. We’ll have a picnic on a small lake with a view to the east. I’ll prepare the food, but I think I’ll leave the poetry to my husband and singing to my dad.

Tsukimi dango, chestnuts and pumpkin, © Risa Sekiguchi, 2009

Tsukimi dango (rice dumplings) and autumnal foods such as pumpkin and chestnuts are offered to the moon during O-tsukimi