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Natural Beauty & traditional celebrations

Gagaku imperial court dance and music performance at Shimogamo Shrine (composite photo)

No place could better suited for full moon viewing than timeless Kyoto. Of all the year's 12 full moons, the autumn full moon, or harvest moon, is considered to be the most sublime.

It is said that the moon viewing custom was introduced to Japan from China during the Nara (710-794) and Heian periods (794-1185). Harvest moon viewing took place on August 15th in the lunar calendar, and it was called jugoya, which means the night of the 15th. Jugoya in the present calendar changes every year and usually falls in September or October. The moon on jugoya is not always full, but it's said that the moon on that night is the brightest and the most beautiful in the year.

In times past, and even today, it was not uncommon for people to set up small tables by the window to enjoy the full moon light while eating tsukimi dango (rice and sweet bean dumplings made specially for the occasion), and sato-imo (taro, a tropical root). Sprays of susuki (pampas grass), which resembles the rice plant, and other autumn grasses are displayed on the verandah, along with neat clusters of tiny rice dumplings. On a more public level, celebrations are held in temples and shrines.

The word, tsukimi (moon viewing), is used in Japanese food as well. For example, tsukimi soba and tsukimi udon are well-known. They aren't food for moon viewing. Tsukimi refers to a cracked egg in Japanese cooking; the egg yolk represents the moon. Tsukimi udon/soba are hot udon/soba noodles served with raw egg toppings. McDonald's in Japan even sells tsukimi burgers, which are hamburgers with fried egg fillings!

Traditional Food for Jugoya Moon Viewing

Dango are simple confections made of rice flour. Rolled into bite-sized balls, they are boiled or steamed and often served on bamboo skewers. Along with taro and pampas grass, these little dumplings are one of the things traditionally offered to the full moon on the most auspicious moon-viewing day.

Tsukimi dango dumpkings/ photo by Hotaru Images

''Better dango than blossoms'', says a cynical Japanese proverb, pointing out that a feast for the eyes is no substitute for one for the stomach. Those pragmatic types who agree may find themselves spending more time munching dango than gazing at the moon!

Real tsukimi dango are only available a few days before the special full moon day. There are two types: one is a plain white morsel which is stacked pyramid-like upon a tray. The other is an oval, Tokyo-style type that contains sweet bean paste and is supposed to resemble taro. Both types are widely sold at sweet shops. Who says you can't have your moon and eat it, too?

Jugoya Moon Viewing Events in Kyoto

A woman making maccha green tea in the moon viewing ceremony

Sept. 22-24: Daikaku-ji Temple Osawa Pond
Since ancient times, people have enjoyed full moon viewing from boats on Osawa Pond. Tea ceremony is held on the boats and participants can enjoy an elegant evening in a spectacular setting. A koto harp concert will also performed twice a day; 1,200 yen for boat ride and tea ceremony, 1,000 yen for tea by the pond (additional entrance fee required to enter the temple: 500 yen); Tel: 075-871-0071; http://www.daikakuji.or.jp/

Sept. 22: Shimogamo Shrine
During this moon viewing music festival, traditional dance and music, and a koto harp music will be performed from 17:30; The performers and players wear gorgeous Heian period costumes. Tea ceremony: 1,000 yen; Tel: 075-781-0010; http://www.shimogamo-jinja.or.jp/

Sept. 22: Kamigamo Shrine
After a special dance performance, special sweet dumplings and sake will be offered to the first 300 people from 17:30. Tel: 075-781-0011; http://www.kamigamojinja.jp/

Dancing shrine maidens at Kamigamo Shrine

Sept. 22: Kitano Tenmangu Shrine
The ceremony starts from 16:00. From 20:30, a variety of local products will be offered to the shrine deity; Tel: 075-461-0005; http://www.kitanotenmangu.or.jp/

Sept. 22: Hirano Shrine
Following a sacred ritual at 18:30, traditional song, dance and gagaku imperial music will be performed at around 19:00. Many night stalls selling souvenirs and food are set up in the shrine precinct. Maccha green tea will also be offered (500 yen with sweet); Tel: 075-461-4450.

Sept. 24 & 25: Taizo-in Temple (in Myoshin-ji Temple)
On both these days a moon viewing and tea ceremony party will be held. The tea ceremony starts from 17:30. From 18:30, participants can enjoy a fine Japanese meal, tea ceremony, garden viewing and traditional music while watching the moon: 8,000 yen (reservation required); Tel: 075-467-1666; http://www.taizoin.com/main.html