Moon Viewing in Japan

Moon Viewing in JapanIf you are in Japan Sept. 23rd-25th then you are in for a real treat. Perhaps in your home country the Autumn Equinox passes by barely noticed. But in Japan, this day in September with equal lengths of day and night, is cause for celebration. The Autumn Equinox is a national holiday and in parks all over Japan people will gather for moon viewing, an activity called “o-tsukimi.� In the Heian period (794-1192), courtesans would write poetry under the moon, but nowadays most people stake out a patch of grass, spread out a cloth and eat sweets and drink tea or sake while watching the moon. Where I live, this is the only day of the year the botanical park is open at night and people are allowed to sit on the grass. A very special occasion indeed.

Moon-viewing is not limited to the spring and autumn equinoxes although these are the most popular times of year for organized moon-viewing events. The autumnal equinox (Harvest Moon) probably originated as a time to pray for a bountiful harvest. But the spring and autumn equinoxes (both national holidays) are also related to Buddhist tradition. O-higan refers to the 7 days surrounding each equinox, and are a time when Japanese people visit the graves of their relatives. This differs from O-bon (the festival of the dead) in August, a traditional time for family members to return to their ancestral homes to honor the dead, mainly because at O-bon the spirits also return to the ancestral home for the reunion. During O-higan, the family merely visits the graves, leaving flowers and beautifying the area around the grave.

Wherever you happen to be in Japan at this time, there are surely going to be moon-viewing events or those celebrating the Autumn Equinox. Traditional Japanese events such as tea ceremonies, ikebana exhibits and Shakuhachi, or other live performances, abound. So grab a piece of grass, get some snacks and sake, and pray it doesn’t rain!

The “Tsukimi” Festival in Sakai, Osaka has been celebrated for over 300 years.

The pond at Daikakuji Temple in Kyoto is one of the most famous spots for moon-viewing in Japan. There are moon-viewing parties here on the night of the Harvest Moon.

Amy Chavez is author of Guidebook to Japan: What the other guidebooks won’t tell you” She is a columnist for The Japan Times, co-hosts the Planet Japan podcast. Visit her website at www.amychavez.com