Tsukimi, or Otsukimi (with the honorific "o" at the beginning), is a Japanese moon-viewing autumn festival. It is called a festival, but otsukimi typically takes place at your home by yourself, with family, or with friends.
You can have an otsukimi evening any time of the year, but traditionally the full moon in September has been considered the moon-viewing festival, as in Japan it is considered the time of the year when the sky is clearest and the moon is most beautiful. It is also a good time to spend the evening outside (or with the windows open) as the severe heat of the Japanese summer has usually ended by this time, yet it is not too cold in the evenings.
Tsukimi parties have been held since the Heian period (794 – 1185), and the festival has been regarded as a harvest festival since the Edo period (1603 – 1868). During the Heian period, the aristocracy would enjoy the beautiful moon by having parties, writing and reading poetry (a favorite pastime of Heian aristocracy), and riding a boat and watching the moon’s reflection in the water. By the Edo period, the custom had spread to the common people, and tsukimi also became a kind of harvest festival thanking the gods for a good autumn harvest.
The moon-viewing festival dates for the next few years are:
- September 27, 2015
- September 15, 2016
- October 4, 2017
- September 24, 2018
- September 13, 2019
Another name for moon-viewing is called jyugoya, or “fifteenth night,” as it was thought that the full moon happened on the fifteenth night of the traditional lunar calendar (this way of calculating the full moon meant the actual tsukimi is sometimes held a day or two before or after the actual full moon). In the traditional lunar calendar, the moon-viewing festival was held on the 15th of the 8th month, which coincides approximately to the full moon happening in mid-September to early-October of the current (Gregorian) calendar.
Otsukimi Foods and Traditions
There are various items to have for your moon-viewing party. Tsukimi dango are dumplings made out of mochi rice. It is said that this tradition started when people used the rice from the harvest and made it into balls to look like the moon. Often the tsukimidango are arranged to look like a pyramid, as it was thought the closer the dango were to the gods, the better they would be able to hear the gratitude from the people.
Susuki, or Japanese silver grass, is used as a decoration as it is thought to ward off evil. It was said that by decorating with susuki, you would ward off illnesses for another year.
Other common decorations are recently harvested fruits and vegetables. These include potatoes, chestnuts, and edamame. Also, fruits and vegetables that grow on vines, such as grapes, were used as it was thought the vines would help connect you to the moon and was auspicious.
Today, tsukimi is less of a harvest festival and more of a time to peacefully watch the moon and reflect on your life, or spend time with family and friends. A food that has come into the modern festival food repertoire is the egg. The yolk of an egg represents the moon. The Japanese commonly eat raw eggs, so there are a few standard tsukimi dishes using raw eggs.
If you're not into raw eggs (I am not), how about a tsukimi loco moco (third thumbnail in pictures above)? Loco moco is a Hawaiian dish popular in Japan. It is rice, meat patty, fried egg, and a gravy or sauce.
McDonald’s has been selling the Tsukimi Burger in the fall since 1991. This burger with a fried egg representing the moon is typically sold for the month of September in Japan and is very popular.
Who Lives on the Moon?
Various cultures have stories about who or what lives on the moon. In the US, we often talk of "the man on the moon." When I was a child, my grandmother would tell me that the moon is made out of cheese and mice are the residents. In Japan, it is said that bunnies live on the moon, and they make mochi.
To enjoy a little otsukimi in the Japanese fashion, how about a craft activity? The video below is an easy to understand instructional video on how to make an otsukimi decoration complete with a bunny in a kimono, tsukimi dango, and susuki.
Kimberley Clarke from England on September 17, 2015:
How wonderful! I always marvel at the moon. It is stunning. And I'd like to find somewhere to buy those rice dumplings! Thank you for sharing your knowledge of Japanese culture. I went to Tokyo for one week once, but I think I need to visit for longer next time to really get to know things better.
Betty Janet Davis from London, UK on September 17, 2015:
What a delightful festival. I love the idea of "moon bunnies"