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Otsukimi – History and Tradition

As we quickly approach our annual Otsukimi moonviewing exhibit, it's essential to delve into the rich cultural context that surrounds this holiday. In this keijiban article, we will explore the long history, cultural significance, and unique traditions that make up one of Japan's most celebrated festivals.

Otsukimi Moonviewing Exhibit 2022 at the Japanese Friendship Garden of Phoenix. A Japanese lantern is seen aglow beside a pond lit up by lanterns.
Otsukimi Moonviewing Exhibit 2022


Otsukimi (お月見) literally translates to "moon viewing" in Japanese, and is an autumn festival steeped in centuries of tradition. This celebration is dedicated to viewing the beauty of the moon at its fullest. While the specific date varies each year, it generally falls between September and October. This moon festival, also known as the Mid-Autumn Festival, is also celebrated across Asia under various regional names.

"Tsukimi at Takanawa - Famous Places of Edo", by Kuniki Utagawa, 1847. In this woodblock print, 3 women dressed in kimono partake in various otsukimi activities while the full moon is in view.
"Tsukimi at Takanawa - Famous Places of Edo", by Kuniki Utagawa, 1847

The origins of the Otsukimi holiday can be traced back to Japanese aristocrats during the Heian period when elements of the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival were first introduced to Japan. Members of the aristocratic class would host moon-viewing gatherings, often aboard boats, to witness the moon's reflection shimmering on the water's surface. This tradition was not only an ode to nature's beauty but also a reflection of the influence of Chinese culture on Japan during that era. The composition of waka poetry was an integral part of these mid-autumn moonviewing festivities, and it continues to hold significance in Otsukimi celebrations today. These poems served as expressions of deep appreciation for the moon's radiance and the changing seasons.

The Otsukimi festival is also often adorned with rabbit imagery, stemming from the Japanese folktale of Tsuki no Usagi. According to the tale, the Old Man from the Moon, disguised as a beggar, encountered a monkey, a fox, and a rabbit gathered around a fire. He expressed his hunger and requested food from them. The monkey and the fox procured fruits, nuts, and fish, while the rabbit, unable to find any food, made an incredible sacrifice by leaping into the fire to offer itself as sustenance. Touched by this act of selflessness, the Old Man from the Moon resurrected the rabbit, allowing it to live with him eternally on the moon. This is why, in Japan, instead of seeing a man in the moon, they envision a rabbit pounding mochi.

Otsukimi Dango - by Just One Cookbook
Otsukimi Dango - by Just One Cookbook


To coincide with the popular folktale, mochi has emerged as a central element in celebrating Otsukimi. Mochi-based treats, such as tsukimi Dango (moon-viewing rice dumplings) and rabbit-shaped mochi confections, have become popular choices for both making and savoring during the holiday. These delicious treats serve as both culinary delights and symbolic representations of the moon and the rabbit's image of pounding mochi.

In Japan, eggs can also symbolize the moon in cuisine, and during otsukimi, you'll encounter familiar dishes like Tsukimi Soba or Tsukimi Udon, enriched with the addition of a raw egg. This practice not only enhances the flavor but also deepens the connection to the holiday. Additionally, seasonal and autumnal fruits and vegetables such as chestnuts (kuri), kabocha (Japanese pumpkin), persimmons, Japanese sweet potatoes, taro, grapes, and pears all find their place in the traditional Otsukimi harvest spread, alongside sake to toast the occasion.

Otsukimi decorations in Musoan Tea House at the Japanese Friendship garden of Phoenix. The decor includes kimono, pampas grass, silks, mochi, and ikebana.
Otsukimi decorations in Musoan Tea House at the Japanese Friendship garden of Phoenix.


Otsukimi is a visual spectacle, with decorations playing a vital role. People often create intricate arrangements made of pampas grass, known as susuki-no-sekku. They are displayed with great care in homes and public spaces during the festival, adding a touch of seasonal elegance to the surroundings.

Caligraphy done at the Japanese Friendship Garden of Phoenix. A woman paints someone's name using a traditional japanese ink and brush set.
Caligraphy done at the Japanese Friendship Garden of Phoenix.


Outside of moonviewing, the art of poetry, particularly waka poetry, is an enduring tradition associated with Otsukimi. Guests often gather to compose poems that pay homage to the moon's brilliance and its profound influence on Japanese culture along with celebrating a successful season of harvest.

We invite you to partake in these time-honored traditions at our upcoming Moonviewing Exhibit, where we celebrate the beauty of this traditional holiday!

Otsukimi 2022 at the Japanese Friendship Garden of Phoenix. Colored lanterns and lights reflect over the pond as the full moon is in view.

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