Exclusive courtly gathering, rowdy boat party or sedate family event? Otsukimi is all of the above.

It’s autumn, which means it’s otsukimi (お月見) time in Japan. Otsukimi is a respectful way to say “moon viewing,” though it can also be shortened to tsukimi if you drop the honorific “o” prefix. The tradition of honouring the harvest moon was imported and adapted from China in the Heian period, and has taken many different forms over the course of Japanese history. These days, the full and waxing moon are celebrated during September and October.

Moon-viewing parties are quieter and more private than their ower-viewing party cousins, but you can bet that most otsukimi will include a few traditional seasonal objects, which vary by region. Each year, families in the Tokyo area provide dango, sweet, white, rice-flour dumplings, which are offered up to the moon in a beautiful, pyramid-shaped stack. Some other common offerings are sweet potatoes, beans and chestnuts. Many houses also decorate their alcoves with susuki, feathery pampas grass, along with other peak autumn flowers.

There are many ways to celebrate otsukimi. A mother might sit with her children out on the veranda, admiring the bright, beautiful moon. She might help them look for the legendary rabbit pounding mochi on the moon, a rabbit that can be found on many autumn-themed ceramics. Or a tea ceremony practitioner might join his cha-no-yu friends, who gather annually for a special ceremony to honour the autumn moon. Or a couple who lives near a beautiful lake might lie back in a boat and enjoy the moon’s clear reflection in the still water. As long as the night is clear and the moon is bright, otsukimi can be enjoyed in many ways.

Back in the Heian period, the emperor and his lords and ladies enjoyed leisurely boating and picnicking as they admired the moon, sipped drinks, munched treats and composed traditional tanka poems in honour of the occasion. During the samurai era, these celebrations crossed class boundaries and the parties became a bit rowdy, with revellers partying late into the evening, or sometimes even overnight. Moon viewing was everywhere, from urban waterways to military castles, which were often built with special moon-viewing pavilions on their grounds. The party continued until 1868, when political changes swept in with the Meiji Restoration, and the wild tsukimi celebrations were shut down.

These days, tsukimi is a more private, subdued a air, but Japanese still pay tribute to the moon, and search for the rabbit who, according to legend, was transported to space as a reward for saving the life of a god who came to earth for a little visit long, long ago. Now each year, we take a little time to admire the moon and all its stories.

Moon manners

Otsukimi comes in many forms, so there are many ways to do it right. To make the most of your first celebration, we suggest trying out the following tips:

DO try writing a tanka poem

Honour your tsukimi with some poetry. It’s only 5-7-5-7-7 syllables!

DO NOT otsukimi alone

Find a family member, friend or loved one, otherwise your poems might get a little emo.

DO eat tsunami dango

Try the delicate, plain white ones, or maybe those served with red bean paste.

Illustration by Chieko Watanabe