Tsukimi “Looking at the Moon” The Japanese Custom of Moon-Viewing

In autumn, the Japanese have a customary holiday called Tsukimi. Simply translated to “looking at the moon” or “moon viewing,” it dates back over 1,000 years to the Heian Period (794 to 1185 AD). This takes place on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month. Today that date would be between September 13th and 21st.

Also known as the mid-autumn festival, it’s a historic and honored time of year. The whole celebration stems from the legend of the Rabbit on the Moon and how it came to live there.

This is a family holiday that focuses on children, music, poetry, and bountiful harvests.

The Rabbit on the Moon

According to eastern philosophy, particularly Buddhist belief, when you look up at a full moon, there’s a rabbit within it.

Many people from Western cultures may recognize this as the “Man in the Moon.” In Japan, there’s a legend about how this rabbit came to be and it has an intrinsic connection to Tsukimi.

The Man on the Moon

Disguised as a beggar, the Man on the Moon came down to earth and happened upon a Monkey, Fox, and Rabbit. He asked them something to eat.

Fox proceeded to bring fish from a stream whereas Monkey brought fruit from the trees. However, Rabbit could only offer grass.

So, knowing the Man on the Moon couldn’t consume just grass, Rabbit told him to build a fire. Once the fire was roaring and ready, Rabbit threw himself onto it to be consumed as food.

Touched and humbled by Rabbit’s generosity, the beggar shapeshifted back into the Man on the Moon, rescued the Rabbit off the fire.

Taking Rabbit Back to the Moon

He and Rabbit traveled back to the moon and so, when you look up at the moon, you see a Rabbit. Some say he pounds a mochi (rice ball) on the moon.

This tale is a pure reflection of Buddhist values since the Buddha himself experienced such a gift from a rabbit while starving in Japan’s forest.

Korea and China have similar legends. But what makes this quintessentially Japanese is the concept of charity and generosity from the other animals in the story, Fox and Monkey.

Fox sculpture in Fushimi Inari-taisha shrine

Traditions and Practices during Tsukimi

Autumn moon-viewing holds a special place in Japanese culture. Also called Otsukimi (お月見), it used to be that people would show their utmost gratitude for a successful harvest and pray for similar success in the next year.

An Old Lunar Holiday

Because this is an ancient celebration, it takes from the old lunar calendar. So, the months and days are much different than what we use today.

Therefore, the full moon would always appear on the 15th night of each month, called Jūgoya.

Imported from China

The eighth month, called Chūshū, was best for viewing the moon and the Japanese created a festival around it, Jūgoya no Tsukimi or Otsukimi.

The Japanese also called it Chūshū no Meigetsu. This came to Japan’s nobility from China during the Tang Dynasty (618 to 907 AD).

Moon Viewing Parties

The Japanese developed moon-viewing parties with live music along with writing and reciting poetry. By the Edo Period (1603 to 1868 AD), this festival was already a popular event that involved offering fresh-harvested rice to their Shinto deities.

Indeed, there’s an impressive piece of art by Yōshū Chikanobu (1838–1912) depicting Emperor Go-Daigo (1288 and 1339 AD) enjoying himself at a moon-viewing party.

The setup of the scene shows how people gathered near a window or veranda to view the moon. Called, tsukimidai, the viewing area adorns rice cakes, strips of grass, or even a special display for ikebana, or a tea ceremony.

Special Tsukimi Dishes and Cuisine

One of the most popular dishes during Tsukimi is a pyramid of white rice balls called Tsukimi Dango. It is a wide-held belief that this food will bring health, fortune, and happiness.

There are 15 of these to indicate the day on the calendar of this holiday.

However, there are some recipes that call for an additional 12 rice balls for each month of the year. Sometimes the capstone will be yellow like the harvest full moon. Yet some people will shape the capstone rice ball into a rabbit.

Other Foods and Dishes

Other foods include things like chestnuts, sweet potatoes, and dishes topped with fried or raw eggs.

Rabbit Manju, Japanese confection for moon viewing gathering

They also decorate with and consume taro, edamame, pumpkin, and susuki (or pampas grass). Even McDonald’s has an egg sandwich to commemorate the holiday, called a Tsukimi Burger.

There’s also a Tsukimi Udon, Soba, Curry, and Ramen noodle dishes. Egg yolks are especially synonymous with the moon and take a particular significance.

All of these foods represent plenty, prosperity, family, and the wish for continued blessings.

Public Events around Japan

There are many public moon-viewing parties that are a must-see for tourists in Japan.

  • Tokyo Tower: The 600-step outer staircase of Tokyo Tower that leads up to the main deck allows visitors to observe the city amid special lights, susuki and dango. Even if you don’t want to take that steep climb, the lights from the outside are a stunning sight with the backdrop of night combined with moonlight.
  • Himeji Castle: The notorious fortress of Hyōgo Prefecture features taiko drumming and other artistic displays. This includes local dishes and sake along with places for tea with telescopic views of the moon.
  • Tokyo Skytree: Live Jazz with moon viewing in Sumida, Tokyo. It’s a tall building that offers fantastic views for seeing the moon during Tsukimi.
  • Sankeien: Yokohama’s famous garden stays open later for Tsukimi, complete with lights, music and dancing.
  • Ise Shrine: In the Mie Prefecture, the over 2,000-year-old Ise Shrine has annual moon viewing parties that focus  on tradition. This is because the shrine is a direct dedication to the goddess Amaterasu-no-mi-kami, the main deity of Shinto belief from where the line of emperors comes. They have poetry readings and live traditional music.

Tsukimi And Japanese Holidays

My fascination with Japan began several years back at a roadside bonsai stand while on vacation. I became more interested in the where and why's more than the trees themselves. My love of Bonsai led me to further research my interest in the gardens where they originated from and the places and people that surrounded those little trees. My curiosity was well rewarded upon visiting Saitama where the National Bonsai Museum was located and Omiya Village the bonsai mecca for lovers of this ancient art form. Exploring many towns and villages and even making my way to Japan's furthest southern prefecture of Okinawa. I hope to share my love of this wonderful and exotic place with all those who want to know more about Japan.