Tsukimi and the Harvest Moon

Written by
Madison Folks
Published on
September 15, 2019 at 1:32:15 PM PDT September 15, 2019 at 1:32:15 PM PDTth, September 15, 2019 at 1:32:15 PM PDT

The Harvest Moon is the full moon closest to the autumn equinox, which generally occurs in the third week of September. In Japan, the beauty of this special moon is celebrated with tsukimi, or "moon viewing." This annual festival usually falls on the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar and marks the brightest moon of the year. While the moon is not necessarily full on the 15th day, it is considered to be at its most beautiful on this day.

Yoshitoshi, The Cassia-Tree Moon: Wu Gang from the series 100 Views of the Moon, 1886. Ronin Gallery.

Tsukimi, also known as ostukimi or jugoya, traces back to the Nara period (710-794). Tsukimi developed from a combination of the traditional Japanese harvest festival and the Chinese aristocratic moon viewing festival. By the Heian period (794-1185), the festival was widely celebrated throughout Japan. Festivities included spontaneous poetry, displays of susuki grass, and tsuki-ryori, or "moon viewing foods." Offerings of tsukimi dango (rice dumplings), sake, and traditional autumnal foods accompanied prayers for a bountiful harvest. Moon viewing parties were often held on boats, as the moon was considered particularly beautiful when reflected in water. By the Edo period, tsukimi had become a boisterous festival that filled the city with all night parties, a custom that was calmed during the Meiji Period.

Yoshitoshi, A Wandering Poet from the series 100 Views of the Moon, 1891. Ronin Gallery.

In the print The Wandering Poet, Yoshitoshi portrays the famous haiku poet Matsuo Basho coming upon a tsukimi celebration. Two farmers have spread a mat on the river bank to take in the beauty of the harvest moon. An autumnal flower arrangement sits on the table, complete with susuki grass. A box of tsuki dango peeks into the composition from the left edge of the print.

Yoshitoshi, Jade Rabbit: Songoku the Monkey King from the series 100 Views of the Moon, 1889. Ronin Gallery.

Today, the tsukimi is enjoyed through private parties, as well as public celebrations at shrines and temples. Tsukimi dango and other seasonal foods such as taro, edamame, chestnuts, and sweet potatoes can be found throughout Japan at this time. The ubiquity of sweet potatoes during this festival has led to the term imomeigetsu, or "potato harvest moon," to describe the Harvest Moon. The term tsukimi is also used in some seasonal dishes—from tsukimi soba to McDonalds tsukimi burger, where the addition of a cracked egg (whether poached, fried, or raw) alludes to the moon through its golden yolk.