Next week begins the official start of the season known in Japan as tsukimi (月見), or "moon viewing".
Historically, tsukimi is associated with the day called juugoya (十五夜), or "full moon viewing". In the historical calendar, this date fell on August 15th (juugoya literally means "night of the 15th"). It changes by year in the Gregorian calendar; this year, it's set for September 24th. A Chinese tradition by origin, it's said that the historical purpose of juugoya is to give thanks to the gods for a bountiful autumn harvest while appreciating the beauty of the moon. Juuyoga is also known as imomeigetsu (芋名月), or "the month of potatoes," in recognition of the importance of giving thanks for the year's bountiful crop.
Juugoya is succeeded by juusanya (十三夜, "night of the 13th"), which this year falls on October 21st Juusanya was said to be as important as juugoya in older times, with the legend being that only seeing the moon on a single night would bring ill fortune. While juugoya is of Chinese origin, juusanya appears uniquely Japanese. The night marks thanks for the harvesting of nuts and beans.
Finally, the last night of moon viewing is a little special. tookaya (十日夜), or "10th night," is actually a celebration meant to give thanks to the gods of the rice fields, and to send them on their way for the season. It's officially celebrated on November 17th; however, since it doesn't have a direct relationship with moon viewing, some areas celebrate it on November 10th. The manner of celebrating tookaya differs by area, but the most common practice has been erecting a scarecrow (カカシ; kakashi) and viewing the moon alongside it. Other customs include giving children sticks to beat the ground and chase away gophers, as well as to encourage the gods of the fields to be on their way, their work being done for the season.
These customs have generally fallen out of practice in modern times, and now tookaya is used by some as another excuse to simply view the moon. Historically, tookaya is primarily celebrated only in eastern Japan, with a similar festival, inoko (亥の子) celebrated in October in western Japan.
(JP) Link: When is Tsukimi in 2018? The Origin of the Three Dates of Tsukimi and How to Enjoy Them
The traditional food of tsukimi is the tsukimi dango (月見団子), or "tsukimi dumpling". Tsukimi dango date back to the Edo era of Japan, and was originally intended to honor that year's harvest by incorporating the harvested wheat into delicious food. Some reports have it that you should stack up 12 tsukimi dango on a plate in a regular year (13 in a leap year), while other traditions hold that you should stack 15 on a plate in celebration of juugoya and 13 for juusanya. Tsukimi dango can be eaten with a variety of accompaniments, including sugar and soy sauce, red bean paste and flour, and miso soup and pickled vegetables.
(JP) Link: What is the Origin and Meaning of Tsukimi Dango? How Many Do You Make, and in What Arrangement?
Want to make your own tsukimi dango? Miyuki Suyari has an English language recipe on Japanese site Cookpad that sounds downright delicious.
(EN) Link: Tukimi Dango (Moon Viewing Dumpling)
Tukimi Dango (Moon Viewing Dumpling) Recipe by Miyuki Suyari
If you're willing to brave the horrors of automated translation, you can also attempt the top-rated recipe for tsukimi dango on the Japanese side of Cookpad.
(JP) Link: Easy! Springy Tsukimi Dango Made with Non-Glutinous Rice Flour
☆簡単！モチモチ♡上新粉でお月見団子☆ by まゆみ〜
Besides tsukimi dango, the symbol of this time of year is the traditional symbol of the moon, the rabbit.
The existence of a rabbit in the moon is an old Asian legend dating back to a story of the Buddha. In the legend, a rabbit, a fox and a monkey happened across an old man begging for fed. To help him out, the three animals decided to fetch him something to eat. The monkey brought back fruit from a tree, and the fox brought fish. But the rabbit, who couldn't find anything no matter how hard he looked, told the old man, "Please eat me", and jumped into the fire to cook himself. The trial was actually a test by the Hindu god Indra (Japanese: taishakuten; 帝釈天), who, in honor of his selfless sacrifice, caused the rabbit to be reborn into the moon.
(JP) Link: The Surprisingly Unknown Legend of the Rabbit in the Moon, and How to See the Moon Rabbit's Form Correctly
意外と知らない月うさぎ伝説と正しい月うさぎの模様の見方 - NAVER まとめ
In China, the rabbit in the moon was said to be holding a hammer that he used to create medicine that granted eternal life. The figure has morphed a little in Japanese culture, and he (she?) is now described as "pounding a rice cake" (餅つき). The original word for a full moon in Japanese was a homonym of "rice cake-pounding" - 望月 (mochitsuki) - making this an easy linguistic gag. Other explanations for the rabbit's labor have it that the poor moon-rabbit is making more food to give to the old man, or, alternatively, that he's making his own food so he never has to worry about finding food again.
I'm the publisher of Unseen Japan. I hold an N1 Certification in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, and am married to a wonderful woman from Tokyo.