Japan’s autumn traditions: Gleaning the reasons for ringing in the season

Futami Okitama Shrine and Meoto-iwa (Husband-and-wife Rocks) File photo
Futami Okitama Shrine and Meoto-iwa (Husband-and-wife Rocks) File photo

Japan’s autumn traditions: Gleaning the reasons for ringing in the season

by Takahiro Takiguchi
Stripes Japan

In the Land of the Rising Sun, September marks the waxing of autumn and the traditional harvest season in which local customs such as “tsukimi” (moon viewing), “inekari” (rice harvesting) and “Higan” memorial services take place throughout Japan.

These can be ideal opportunities to get outside the gates, learn something about the local culture and maybe even experience a side of Japan that some modern Japanese miss out on these days. With that in mind, here are some basics to get you started:

Inekari (rice harvesting)

It’s no surprise that in Japan – where more than 8.8 million tons of rice was produced in 2017, alone – much ado is made about harvesting this prized staple food. Its cultivation was once even considered sacred, involving invocations of an “inadama,” or rice spirit. When the grains began maturing in the fall, for example, green sheaves were offered to this deity whose generosity was celebrated at season’s end.

A reflection of this practice can still be found in some traditional performing arts today; and “Inekari,” or rice harvesting, remains a traditional event in farming regions where harvest festivals are held annually. A few farms even allow visitors to join the time-honored tradition of harvesting rice.

Rice harvesting can be done manually with sickles, mechanically with a harvester or by using a combination of both. Regardless of the method, a number of guidelines are followed to preserve quality.

“We need to harvest rice at the right time with the right moisture content,” explains Shigeru Oyama, a rice farmer in Ibaraki Prefecture. “After threshing, we have to clean and dry the grain immediately.”

While most rice is harvested between September and October throughout Japan, Okinawa’s warm temperatures afford two harvests a year.

In addition to harvesting 1,920 tons of rice from late May to early September 2018, the island’s farmers also harvested a second, 282-ton crop between late October 2018 and early February of this year, according to data of Okinawa Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Division.

Ishigaki Island is famed for its rice. It produces about 1,300 tons of annually – about 60 percent of all the rice grown in Okinawa Prefecture – due to its fertile soil and temperate climate which allow some fields to produce three crops annually. In the true spirit Japanese rice cultivation, Ishigaki is also famed for its many “hounensai,” or harvest, festivals that occur island-wide– especially from late July to early September.

Tsukimi (moon viewing) 

Tsukimi is a long-held custom observed on the 15th night of eighth month (“jugo-ya”) and the 13th night of the ninth month (“jusan-ya”) of Japan’s old lunar calendar. This year, the dates fall on Oct. 1 and Oct. 29, respectively. On these evenings, many take in the splendor of the Harvest Moon (and the less-famous “Hunters’ Moon” in October) in all its awesome, orangish glory from their homes or yards.

Traditionally, tsukimi ranks with “yukimi” (snow viewing) and “hanami” (cherry-blossom viewing)” as one of the three most favored settings for declarations of love and poetic outpourings of the soul.

This is also considered a time to wish for a rich harvest and prosperity for the coming year. It’s customary to set out “tsukimi dango,” or moon-viewing dumplings, taro, soybeans, chestnuts, persimmons and other round-shaped seasonal foods, along with sake and sprigs of “susuki” grass on a portable table. The table is placed on a porch or in a corridor from which the moon is viewed.

There are a number of other customs that may be observed depending on where you are. As a kind of pre-harvest-fest activity, for example, the sprigs of susuki grass represent rice and are sometimes hung from the eaves of a home to ward off illness after an evening of moon viewing.

One old custom, slightly reminiscent of trick or treating in the States, encourages children to go around the neighborhood “stealing” the dumplings and other offerings on the tables. The stolen offerings are considered to have been accepted by the moon, thus the more stolen, the better.

In Okinawa, the light of the Harvest Moon was once used to divine households’ fortunes for the coming year in some areas. Locals would make rice cakes with sweet beans called “fuchagi,” offer them to the moon, then climb a nearby hill to survey their village by moonlight. It was said that residents of homes that appeared dark would be prosperous, while those whose houses appeared bright would be less fortunate.

Higan (memorial)

There is a saying in Japan that, “No heat or cold lasts over the equinox.” The autumnal and spring equinoxes are considered the border, and thus the end, of the respective hot and cold seasons. In Japan’s Buddhist tradition, these times also represent passing from one realm to the next.

Higan (literally, “other shore”) is a seven-day Buddhist memorial service held on the equinoxes (three days before and after). The concept can be likened to Memorial Day in the United States, in that it is a special time set aside to remember friends and family who have died.

Both the Vernal Equinox (Mar. 20) and Autumnal Equinox (Sept. 22) have been observed as holidays for more than 1,000 years in Japan. Originally, the Higan ceremony called on devout Buddhists to visit temples and offer prayers for the souls of the dead. Records indicate Higan was widely observed as far back as the 9th century A.D. when the equinoxes became religious holidays and the emperor called on

Buddhist monks to read scriptures for these rites.

Today, people visit family tombs in temples or common cemeteries to offer prayers for deceased family members and friends. Sweet rice-gluten balls, or “ohagi,” are commonly eaten during these periods. (The name ohagi comes from autumn flower “hagi,” or bush clover.)

Under the moon

Best spots in Mainland Japan

Sankeien garden “Har vest Moon Night Viewing”

This famous moon-viewing spot and well-known Japanese garden in Yokohama City hosts this event annually. Garden buildings, such as a three-storied pagoda, are beautifully illuminated and traditional Japanese music and dance is performed at “Domyoji,” an old temple hall. Sept. 12 – 16 from 6:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. Admission is 200 to 700 yen ($2-$7). For more details, call 045-621-0634 or visit: https://www.sankeien.or.jp/en-event/14.html

Osawanoike in Kyoto

“Osawanoike Kangetu-no-yube” Moon Viewing has been held on the oldest artificial pond in traditional Japanese temple garden in Kyoto since the Saga Emperor conducted one on a wooden boat about 1,100 years ago. Today, it is known as one of the three most famous moon-viewing events in Japan. Enjoy the traditional autumn event on a classical dragon-shaped Japanese boat on the beautiful pond. This year, the event is simplified and conducted for only three days, Oct. 1-3, due to the Covid-19. Admission to the event site is 300 to 500 yen. Reservation is required if you go aboard a boat with additional charge of 1,000 yen. For reservation or more information, visit www.daikakuji.or.jp/ or call Daikakuji Temple at 075-871-0071.

Photo courtesy of www.daikakuji.or.jp/

Harvest the rice

Try your hand at harvesting rice near Yokota Air Base. Olive Park Tokyo in Higashi Murayama City offers a rice harvesting event in Kitayama Park’s rice field. From Sept. 15 to Nov. 15, from 10 a.m. to noon. Admission is 4,400 yen ($40) for adult and 3,500 yen for elementary schoolers, and 3,000 yen for ages 2 – 6. The participants can take 100 grams of harvested rice home. For details and reservations, visit: https://www.tokyo-olive.com/ (Japanese)


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