Rabbit on the moon…

Okay, we’ll keep a close eye for the bunny girl.

-Buzz Aldrin, Apollo Lunar Module, July 20, 1969

We experienced a full moon on the night of October 12th.  Full moons have been significant to many cultures since prehistory.  The October full moon is known as the Hunter’s Moon in old almanacs, owing to hunters in Europe being able to utilise the extended period of reasonable light for hunting after sunset.  The same is said to be true for certain Native Americans.

Japan’s relationship with the full moon is based around moon-viewing (tsukimi) in September.

Tradition holds that the full moon will occur on the 15th night (jugoya) lunar month, although some sources suggest the calender originally aligned the full moon with the 13th night (jusan-ya).  The September full moon falls in the period covered by the eighth month of the lunar calender, so the full name of this moon is Hachigatsu Jugoya (八月十五夜), literally “15th night in August”.  Similarly, the October full moon falls in the ninth lunar month, so it is Kugatsu Jusan-ya (九月十三夜), “13th night in September”.  This year, the lunar date fell on October 9th.  Confusing indeed.

While the September full moon viewing comes from China, the October event is unique to Japan, although it is merely an extension of the same concept – apparently a 10th century emperor and his coutiers decided that they liked the October full moon too.

Caveat: Some families place importance on the actual full moon for these nights, while others keep to the date (usually based around Buddhist events) regardless of the phase of the moon, or indeed if the moon is visible or not due to cloud cover.

Offerings are made to the [full] moon, typically dumplings (dango), which are round and white like the moon, and decorated with Japanese pampas grass (susuki).  The grass is a typical symbol of autumn.

Because harvest offerings are made to the full moon, different names may also be used.  September is harvest season for taro (which also happen to be round and white, like the moon), so it a sometimes known as imomeigetsu (芋名月) or “great moon of the potato”. Likewise, October offerings include unripe soybeans (edamame) and chestnuts (both of which are round-ish, kind of like the moon…)

[Update, October 18] A friend has given me permission to use some beautiful photos of her family’s offerings.

Harvest offerings to the moon. Photo by Misako Koshiishi

In addition to pampas grass, there are (large dish, clockwise) mandarins, taro, persimmons; and (small dish) manju. Photo by Misako Koshiishi.

Talk to any Japanese person an they’ll ask you if you can see the rabbit in the moon.

Rabbit in the Moon for Dummies. Still reckon it’s stretching the imagination a bit… Image courtesy of Wikipedia

The story goes that a monkey, a fox (the original Indian version has monkey, an otter and a jackal) and a rabbit met a starving old man and each set out to find food for him.  The monkey climbed a tree and brought fruit, the fox dived into a river and brought fish.  The rabbit was unable to do anything, and, full of remorse, dived into the fire to offer himself as food.

The old man revealed himself to be Sakra, and was so touched by the rabbit’s virtue that he put the creature’s image on the moon (some versions have it that the rabbit, or it’s soul, was sent to the moon).

I’ve looked pretty hard, but I still can’t see any rabbit in the moon!

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