Observe the Autumn Full Moon With a Japanese Moon-Shaped Dessert

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  • In Japan, the month of September used to be known by the name Nagatsuki (長月) in the kyuureki (旧暦) or the old lunar calendar. Subsequently, with the adoption of the Western calendar, the same name was thus used for the 9th month in the new calendar system. There are a number of theories as to what this name means and how it came about. Of these, the most widely-accepted explanation is that the autumn nights are long in the lunar month of September thus the use of the term “Nagatsuki” which literally means “long month.” Other than this term, the month is also known by other names such as Inekarizuki (稲刈月) i.e. the month when rice plants are harvested, and Ineagarizuki (稲熟月) i.e. the month when rice plants ripen.

    Full moon during Nagatsuki

    nagatsuki-full-moon

    In September, the most significant festival would have to be Chuushuu no Meigetsu (中秋の名月) i.e. the Mid-Autumn Festival which falls on 15 August in the kyuureki which regards the four seasons to last for three months each. As such, July, August, and September in the lunar calendar are deemed to be the autumn months, while 15 August is right in the middle of this season. Due to the fact that a full moon can be observed on the 1st and 15th days of the month, the custom to admire the full moon on this night then came into existence. As this festival also coincides with the harvesting of the taro, the day is also known by the name Imo Meigetsu (芋名月).

    One interesting thing to note is that the moon is actually at its fullest not on the actual night of Chuushuu no Meigetsu, but usually one day before or after it. In addition, due to the festival being in the midst of the typhoon season and the autumn rainy season in Japan, the likelihood of the sky clearing up for the night’s moon viewing is so low that it was mentioned in books during the Edo era (江戸時代) that you probably won’t be able to see the full moon in 9 out of 10 years.

    Although it is not clear how and when the festival of Chuushuu no Meigetsu exactly started, it was believed that the most likely theory was that China had this longstanding custom of viewing the full moon which was brought into Japan by the envoys of the Tang empire during the Heian era (平安時代). Rather than looking up into the sky directly to view the full moon, the nobles were said to have taken part in activities such as riding boats and holding banquets which were said to be for the purpose of admiring the moon’s reflection on the water surface or in the drinks they consumed. The first mention of this custom was in the year 909 when Emperor Daigo (醍醐天皇), the 60th emperor of Japan, hosted the first moon-viewing banquet. Although this practice of observing the autumn full moon was largely restricted to the nobles at first, it gradually became a custom observed by commoners since the Edo era.

    Do you know that there are actually two nights to do otsukimi (お月見) in Japan? Besides the night of 15 August in the lunar calendar which is in September of the Western calendar, the second otsukimi takes place one month later on the night of 13 September in the lunar calendar. As such, you will hear the terms “juugoya” (十五夜) i.e. the night of the 15th and “juusanya” (十三夜) i.e. the night of the 13th which refer to the 15 August and 13 September respectively. Take note that if you do take part in the otsukimi ceremony on the juugoya, you have to do it again on the juusanya or else it is deemed as a partial tsukimi that is frowned upon in Japan.

    The items offered during Chuushuu no Meigetsu

    chuushuu-no-meigetsu-offerings

    During the otsukimi which is regarded as an occasion to love the month and offer thanks to the gods for a bountiful harvest, the tsukimi dango (月見団子), crops harvested in autumn such as taro, edamame and chestnuts, the susuki (すすき) i.e. Japanese pampas grass and wine are offered to the moon as offerings while admiring the full moon. In Okinawa (沖縄), the fuchagi (吹上餅) which is a steamed wagashi (和菓子) with red beans covering it is also included as an offering. In Buddhist temples, rituals to pray for a bountiful harvest are performed as part of the festival.

    Depending on whether you are holding the otsukimi ceremony on the juugoya or juusanya, the number of tsukimi dango offered will differ. In some regions, there are rules dictating that on the juugoya, fifteen pieces will be offered while on the juusanya, thirteen pieces will be used instead. As for how to place the items, they should be placed in the alcove where the moon can be seen. Items belonging to the natural world should be placed on the left as seen from the perspective of the moon while man-made items such as the tsukimi dango should be placed on the right.

    Tsukimi dango

    tsukimi-dango

    The tsukimi dango is a key item offered during the otsukimi and is made from top grade non-glutinous rice flour and shaped into a ball to resemble the moon. Although the taro is often offered together with the tsukimi dango during the ceremony, it is gradually replaced by the latter so chances are, you will only see the tsukimi dango among the offerings. Besides praying for a bountiful harvest and celebrating the harvest season, the tsukimi dango’s round shape symbolizes the bearing of fruit, health, and happiness.

    As mentioned above, the number of tsukimi dango offered depends on whether you are holding the otsukimi on the juugoya or juusanya. Regardless of the number of tsukimi dango used, they are all placed to make a pyramid shape where the tip symbolizes the connection to the spiritual world. If 15 pieces of the tsukimi dango are used, they will be placed in three levels where 9 will be arranged in a 3-by-3 format, while the second level of 4 pieces will be arranged in 2-by-2, and the top level consists of 2 pieces. In the case of 13 pieces, the format will resemble the first two levels of the 15-piece arrangement. In some instances, the number of tsukimi dango used may be 12, 5, or 3 which represents 12 months in a year or the tail value of juugoya (15) and juusanya (13).

    Tsukimi dango and a full moon

    tsukimi-dango-with-full-moon

    Each tsukimi dango has a circumference of 1.5 sun (一寸五分) which is about 4.5 cm. However, although the tsukimi dango appears round, it is actually slightly dented at the edges so that it would not look entirely like the makura dango (枕だんご) which are offered to the deceased and placed beside their pillows. The tsukimi dango are placed on a sanpou (三方) which is a small wooden stand for placing offerings with a piece of square white paper spread at the bottom with its sides dangling over the edges. In Shinto-style rituals, a sanpou made from plain and unvarnished wood is used while in Buddhist-style rituals, a lacquered sanpou is used instead. However, many families do not have the sanpou so a tray or plate can also be used.

    Kansai-style tsukimi dango

    kansai-tsukimi-dango

    Most of the tsukimi dango you see are white, but in the Kansai (関西) region, there is a different version where the tsukimi dango is oval and covered with a layer of red bean paste. However, in places like Nagoya City (名古屋), their tsukimi dango come in three colors i.e. white, pink, and brown and are shaped like the taro but they do not have the red bean paste covering the dango.

    Nagoya-style tsukimi dango

    nagoya-tsukimi-dango

    The tsukimi dango is a wagashi which is very easy to make and only requires a small number of ingredients such as top grade non-glutinous rice flour, hot water, salt, and sugar. The flour and water are mixed together to form a dough which is then seasoned accordingly. Once the dough is kneaded into balls, they are then boiled for about three to four minutes and cooled in the open.

    Now that we’ve come to the end of the Wagashi Calendar series, I hope that the articles have helped you to understand more about the traditional Japanese names used to refer to the months of the year and the signature wagashi associated with them. Have fun trying these delicacies during your trip in Japan!

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