Friday, September 30, 2016

TSUKIMI: A Japanese Autumn Tradition

Summer has come and gone, and now Japan is getting ready to enjoy the fall season. If it's something that the Japanese are traditionally fond of, it's the seasons, and the changing of them. The Japanese have symbols that announce every season, and even the time in-between. In Japan, there are certain flowers, certain foods, certain sounds, certain moods, certain smells, certain songs, certain poetry, certain scenery that is associated with a particular season, or even part of the season.

The time is now Autumn, when the temperature begins to fall, the leaves change color, the days shorten, and certain foods are in season. The Japanese associate the fall with an increase in appetite, so much so that they have a term for it; "shokuyoku no aki." (食欲の秋) This is the time when Japanese take trips to go see the autumn foliage at temples and shrines. The weather begins to get chilly, and people gather at houses and local bars to eat different kinds of food together, in particular Japanese hot pot, or nabe. (鍋)

An Autumn scene in Kyoto

A family enjoying sukiyaki

Autumn is moon viewing season in Japan. That is, the Japanese hold special rites to worship the moon. Traditionally, it is believed that the full moon of the 8th and 9th month of the old calendar are the brightest moons of the year, and the best time to take time out to observe the moon's beauty. The tradition of appreciating and making offerings to the moon is called Otsukimi (お月見), and it is said to be introduced to Japan during the Heian period, when Japanese aristocrats began introducing elements of the Chinese Mid-Autumn festival to the country, making offerings and reciting poetry under the Harvest Moon.

Today, Otsukimi is observed on both the full moons of September and November; in September, the full moon is observed (15th night of the lunar month), while in November, the moon is observed while it is still waxing (13th night of the lunar month). Because the dates refer to the old Japanese calendar, they don't always fall on the same day every year.

For Otsukimi, the Japanese decorate their houses with pampas grass, and make special rice cake dumplings called "Otsukimi Dango." (お月見団子) Traditionally, these rice cakes are made, eaten, and offered to the moon, along with sweet potatoes, which are a harvest of the season.

An Otsukimi offering of rice dumplings, or otsukimi dango

The Harvest Moon is forever immortalized
in the traditional Hanafuda playing cards.
This is the Harvest Moon depicted in the
"August" suit. The 8th month in the traditional
Japanese calendar corresponds with
September in the Gregorian calendar.
Hey! Hadn't you seen this card before?

Speaking of which, I'd like to talk a little bit about one of the foods most often eaten by the Japanese during the fall and winter season, and that's baked sweet potato, or yakiimo. (焼き芋) Come fall, it becomes yakiimo season, and one can begin to see freshly baked sweet potato at grocery and convenience stores.

Sometimes, you can even hear it being announced on loudspeakers, by men selling them out of a truck that has an actual oven for baking sweet potatoes on it. Almost like we would hear an ice cream truck back home, one can hear a passing yakiimo truck announce "Yaaaaaaaa-ki-imoooooo!!!" My wife likes it so much she always tells me to go chase the man down and buy a few for her.

When you buy baked sweet potato from a truck, you'll often get it wrapped in newspaper

A Yakiimo truck. Can you see the stove's chimney coming out the back?

Did you know that in Japan, it is traditionally believed that the image on the moon is that of a rabbit pounding away at a mortar making mochi? (餅) It's true! The association is so strong, that another symbol for Otsukimi, and thus the Autumn season in general, is a rabbit. The image of the rabbit pounding mochi on the moon is called "usagi no mochitsuki." (うさぎの餅つき)

 I always thought that the moon looked like a sad, crying face...

I wonder why it's sad... Maybe when it sees that Americans are being forced to choose between Billary Clinton and Donald Drumpf, it can't help but cry... (HAH HAH HAH! X-D )

One last thing.

There are a lot of reasons why I just love McDonald's in Japan. The service is just so much better in comparison to McDonald's back home, the food quality is also better, and there is just so much variety on the menu that's always changing. One of the things I just love about Japanese McDonald's is that even here, one can observe the Japanese' love for the changing of the seasons. They have special burgers and foods that are served only for a limited time during different times of the year.

Right now, you can go to McDonald's and buy one of three different "Otsukimi Burgers." For whatever reason, a fried egg has been associated with Otsukimi, and if a food has an egg in it, it can be called "Otsukimi" something.

From left to right; the "Mangetsu Cheese Tsukimi," "Cheese Tsukimi," and plain "Tsukimi" burgers.
(Mangetsu, 満月, means "full moon.")

 Tsukimi soba, a bowl of soba noodles with a poached egg on top.
Perhaps the egg yolk is associated with the moon?

Related Posts:
Early Summer: The Season for Lemony Goodness

Japanese Summer Treat: Ramune

Tsuyu Series: Rain in Videogames