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Harvest Moon Festival in Japan - Rabbit Making Rice Cake On the Moon?

September 22, 2018

What is Harvest Moon Festival?

'Harvest Moon Festival' is coming every autumn in Japan. As this holiday falls on 15th of August in the lunar calendar, the date (on the current calendar) varies every year. This year (2018), 24th of September is the day. 

This festival originates in China and it is celebrated in other Asian countries such as Korea, Vietnam as well. In China, it is the national holiday, by the way (not in Japan, unfortunately)

Harvest Moon Festival in Japan

This festival is basically celebrating the harvest and showing gratitude towards the nature of gods. OK, it's harvest festival. But, what about the moon? 

There has been a tradition to enjoy seeing the moon among the aristocrats since ancient times in Japan. Autumn is believed to be the best timing to see the most beautiful moon, in particularly the full moon in autumn.

This tradition has been popularised during the Edo period and became like an event as it is today.

Harvest Moon Festival in Japan

What to do on Harvest Moon Festival?

Have you ever heard of a Chinese mooncake? Sending mooncakes to each other as a gift is a pretty popular tradition in China for this festival. Although Japanese sometimes eat mooncakes (called 'Geppei' 月餅 in Japanese) It is not particularly for this event, they are actually sold all the year.

Harvest Moon Festival in Japan

Instead of mooncake, Japanese people eat Tsukimi Dango (月見団子) at this festival. Dango is a kind of rice cake (mochi). It is pretty popular Japanese sweets (wagashi 和菓子) and it is always one of the most favourite sweets for green tea.

Normally dango is served like this (in skewer) 

Japanese Dango

 But, this is what Tsukimi-Dango looks like.

Harvest Moon Festival in Japan -Tsukimi-Dango

Tsukimi-Dango - Tsukimi means 'watching the moon' and 'Dango' means 'rice cake ball'. Dango and Tsukimi-Dango are basically the same things 'foodwise'.  Both of them are rice cake balls. 

We just call 'dango' what we eat for Harvest Moon Festival as 'Tsukimi-Dango'. Another difference is its display. As mentioned, Dango is normally served with a skewer. The main purpose of Tsukimi-Dango is a celebration and showing a gratitude towards nature of god about this year's harvest. Inevitably, it has a bit taste of religious (spiritual) meaning in this rice cake balls. 

As shown in the picture above, Tsukimi-Dango is displayed in a pyramid form. Also, susuki-grass is displayed alongside Tsukimi-Dango. This susuki-grass is a very significant plant in Japanese culture and is a symbol of a good harvest prayer.

Harvest Moon Festival in Japan

The moon is where rabbits making rice cakes for the Japanese

Surprisingly, people see different things on the moon depending on where you're from. The Moon's surface has a lot of dark areas. Many cultures see their shapes in these dark and light areas that have reminded them of people, animals or objects etc.

In Japan, we have a united image of this (no alternatives, just one). It's a rabbit which is making a rice cake (mochi). First, you need to understand what exactly means to 'make a rice cake'. This is how it goes.

Japanese mochi pounding

This is a very traditional way to make mochi. It's called a mochi-pounding (mochi-tsuki). Japanese people eat mochi for celebration, most particularly in new year's season. So, this mochi ponding can be often seen in new year's season.

I've done it before. It's much harder than it first looks. After you pound for the first 30 seconds, you're already exhausted seriously. But, there's always a professional one who eager to make something like these people.

Now you understand what is making a rice cake (mochi-pounding). Let's go back to a rabbit which is making a rice cake (mochi). This is how Japanese people see the moon. Can you spot a rabbit?

Japanese harvest moon festival

 Not yet, huh? How about this one then?

 Japanese harvest moon festival

I think it looks like it if somebody tells me so... Well, the moon is too far away to see this anyway. What it matters is to use your imagination.

In Japan, this moon rabbit can be seen in so many different stories. For example, do you remember this character in Dragon Ball? Usagi Ninjika, this Goku's enemy in early times of Dragon Ball is still considered to be one of the strongest opponents in the most famous and popular Japanese manga. (Everything he touches will change into a carrot! Scary) The idea of this character is obviously from the moon rabbit.

Harvest Moon Festival in Japan

As you know, he(?) eventually was beaten by Goku and ended up with staying in the moon and doing this as below. No question asked. You should know what he's doing this.

Harvest Moon Festival in Japan

 Another prominent example of the moon rabbit, what's her name? 

Japanese Mon rabbit -Usagi Tsukino

She's Tsukino Usagi from Sailor Moon. Her name means Moon's (Tsukino) Rabbit (Usagi). Did you know that? 

The moon, rice cake and rabbit are all closely related in Japanese culture. When you visit Japan next time, take a look at the moon. Maybe, you can see the moon rabbit. That's what you can see nowhere else, but Japan...

Thank you for reading.


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