Grab it, cried the child, pointing up at the full moon- Issa
Tonight, a substantial portion of the world's population will will in waves collectively turn their eyes up toward the moon. Yes, the Mid-Autumn Festival 中秋節 is upon us again.
The appreciation of the mid-autumn moon is a custom dating back at least to Han dynasty China-- probably even earlier.Indeed, for at least 2000 years now, it has been the full moon of the Eighth Month (approximately present-day September) which has been considered the most beautiful moon of the year.
In Japan, the custom of moon-viewing was adopted from China during the early Heian times and fantastic moon-viewing parties were a celebrated part of court life from these early times. The aristocrats would drink plenty of rice wine and floating lazily on their dragon boats, they would drift around man-made ponds as they gazed at the moon (perhaps composing poetry and snacking on mooncakes).
K-sensei-- who also loves this time of year-- sent me an essay he had written the other day for a local newspaper in which he writes,
"On long autumn nights, gazing up in awe at the moon, I feel glad to have been born Japanese. On those nights, as the sad, lonely autumn wind blows across the rice fields and the sound of the singing crickets seems to penetrate me, I feel something deeply meaningful as I look at the moon."
He tells me that many Japanese people feel something along the lines of aesthetic and spiritual awe when they gaze at the moon. K-sensei, in the grand tradition of nihonjin-ron, then goes on to compare the Japanese experience of moon-viewing with that of the West.
In the West, he explains, the full moon has long been associated with insomnia and insanity. The night of the full moon was a night to ward oneself against evil or lunacy. We see this aspect of the Western tradition perhaps in our word "lunatic," which, of course, comes from "luna." Indeed, the full moon has long been associated we are told with everything from vampires to excessive dog bites. (Cat Power and the Moon)
"The moon that lives in the hearts of those in the East, if anything, possesses a kindness and purity which has the ability of bringing out the best in humans. There is a story of a thief in a watermelon field. The moon shining down on the thief made him feel so ashamed about what he was about to commit that he left the field unable to touch even one watermelon."
The moon, then, is like a brilliant mirror reflecting back the purist and most beautiful parts of our hearts. It is another instance of the Japanese belief in the power of beauty*
Finally, K-sensei writes,
"The Chinese believe that a jade hare (玉兎) is pounding mochi rice cakes (In China, medicine to help the sick) up on the moon. This comical story of a rabbit pounding rice cakes has long been associated with moon viewing, and this type of imaginative story-telling about the moon is an expression of the way in which the moon lives in the hearts of the people of the East. Images such as this, unfold within our hearts a feeling of peacefulness and happiness."
So, this year, we too-- along with millions of other people-- will celebrate the beauty of the moon. In Hong Kong and Kaoshiung-- everything was so lit up and my memories of mid-autumn festivals spent in those cities are less about the beauty of the moon as they are about delicious dinners and mooncakes, lanterns and lights, and the great festivity that transformed the streets. (Like my friend Billy, I remain a sucker for a good mooncake).
In Tochigi, it is quieter, but, I think, no less enjoyable.
Like last year, I'll put pampas grass 薄 in a tall bamboo basket and set it out on our red deck (which, in autumn, we call our "the moon-viewing platform" or 月見台). We will probably drink beer and eat Kaori's o-tsukimi dango and just sit there quietly looking at the sky. Last year was cloudy and the moon just wouldn't show her face, so Adonis (being a feisty six year old) growing frustrated, grabbed the pampas grass out of the basket and waving the branches at the sky yelled, "Come out, come out, o-tsuki-sama!"
We trained our eyes on the brightest part of the sky, knowing the moon to be hiding there behind the thick clouds, and sure enough, after maybe 20 minutes, out slipped the brilliant full light of the moon. The clouds were in constant motion up above, making the moon itself look like it was rolling on a great ocean of dark waves. Everytime the moon would slip out past the clouds, we would gasp, and I could hear the neighbors voices, "Look, the moon!" "It's out from behind the clouds, look!"
Many of you will perhaps smile to learn that the the Japanese alone have two moon-viewing festivals. In addition to the Chinese-originated mid-Autumn moon of the Eighth Month (September by the current calendar), the Japanese do it all over again-- with a slight twist-- in the Ninth Month (October).
It's said it all started when Emperor Daigo, who ruled during the Engi Period (around 900 a.d.), up and decided that he preferred the late Autumn moon. And, from that time onward, it came to pass that Japan celebrated the autumn moon twice: once during the spectacular full moon of the Eight Month, and then again when the moon was not quite full on the 13th Night of the Ninth Month
It's hard to say why the Emperor preferred the three-quarter moon over the full moon of the previous month, but perhaps the appeal has something to do with the Japanese aesthetic preference for the slightly imperfect over the perfect. Or maybe it is due to the ancient Taoist idea that the perfectly full moon is already in a state of decline. I've also read that the Japanese take pride that this 13th Night Moon of the Ninth Month is their original invention-- and not yet another custom imported from the continent.
We always drink cocoa for the second one so Adonis and I call the moon of the ninth month the "Cocoa Moon"
And for moon viewing in Mongolia, see Don Croner in Mongolia on the Harvest Moon.
Music recommended by Monsieur PC Cheng of Facebook (多謝！）: