Lunar calendar and agriculture
Tsukimi (月見）is an ancient Japanese tradition of autumn moon viewing. The word itself means what it is, “looking at the moon. However, the tradition of holding special moon-viewing parties in Japan has a very long history going back at least a thousand years.
I guess the origin of the moon-viewing festival originated as many of other festivals around the world from agricultural practices. Farmers have been using the lunar calendar for millennia. Even now a lot of gardening books and websites advise planting by the phases of the Moon.
There is a scientific explanation behind it: apparently the gravitational pull from the Moon affects moisture in the soil. I am not a scientist and cannot vouch for whether if true or not. But in ancient times people believe it anyway.
The end of the harvest season, which usually happened around the autumn equinox was a very important date, as the quality of the harvest impacted the livelihood of the whole community. If the harvest was good, the people could happily live through the winter.
To celebrate the harvest and thank the gods and other supernatural beings who help to grow it, farming communities usually had a festival on the night of the full moon after all the crops were brought in. Typically it fell at the end of September – beginning of October.
In Britain, for example, the festival is known as the harvest home and traditionally celebrated on the Sunday closest to the harvest moon. There were similar festivals in agricultural communities in the world. In Japan, the best night for moon-viewing was always considered the fifteenth night of the eighth month of the lunar calendar, known as jūgoya no tsukimi. In 2019, this is date falls on September 13.
Look at the rabbit on the moon!
As many ancient customs, tsukimi came to Japan from China, where it started around the 7th century and spread to Japanese aristocrats of the Nara and Heian periods during 710-1185. During the Edo period (1603–1868), tsukimi became a popular practice among commoners merging with the ancient autumn festival traditions to offer freshly harvested rice to the god to thank them for all their help.
So what did and does tsukimi involve? At the very beginning, it was a moon-viewing party at which people play music and compose poetry. I assume that Heian aristocrats were drinking sake on those parties as well. By that time, as you can read in my post about the origin of sake, it was already available at the Imperial court.
Later came other attributes: rice dumplings called tsukimi-dango, plumes of pampas grass (susuki), taro bulbs and various seasonal autumn produce like chestnuts, pumpkins, edamame beans and of course, sake!
Another interesting thing is that instead of seeing a man on the moon, Japanese people see a rabbit who is pounding mochi rice cakes with a mullet. One theory explains it with a Buddhist tale Jade Rabbit, another theory cites a wordplay, where words “full moon” and “pounding mochi” sound similar.
So what about sake? The sake brewing season ends at the end of June, does it not? Well, yes, but autumn is traditionally the prime time for drinking sake. Why is that? Sake is usually brewed during cold winter months and then pressed in spring-early summer. But after brewing, sake needs some ageing to refine and mellow the flavours. Usually, sake spends a few months either in special tanks or already bottled.
And by autumn breweries start shipping special edition seasonal sake called aki-agari and hiyaoroshi to celebrate the new sake season.
Aki-agari (秋上がり) refers to the phenomenon of sake improving by autumn getting more balanced and rounded. There is another name, aki-bare (秋晴れ), meaning “blue autumn skies”, which I find very poetic.
Traditionally, sake needed six months after brewing to reach its best form. So by autumn, it was ready for drinking and released as aki-agari. However, it changed a bit with the advance of modern refrigerating technology. Nowadays, maturing varies from brewery to brewery and is fr from being uniform.
Still, breweries are keen to release sake in autumn under aki-agari moniker. So in broad terms, aki-agari refers to the sake from the most recent batch released in autumn. I guess it’s good for marketing. Unfortunately, you don’t see many aki-agari sake here in London.
Hiyaoroshi (冷や卸し) refers to sake pasteurised only once after brewing. Historically, sake was always pasteurised twice: the second time after bottling in order to safely ship in the absence of refrigerator trucks. However, now it’s not necessary though most of sake is still pasteurised twice.
The single pasteurisation (or rather the absence of the second) gives sake a bit fresher and livelier taste, which is great after the exhausting summer months in Japan. Mind, hiyaoroshi sake is not strictly regulated. So some of them weren’t pasteurised at all and are defined just by the time of release and the maturity period.
There is a good article about autumn sake on Arline’s Taste Translation website.
Tsukimi: sake and… moonlight
Autumn is a great time to have sake. It starts with tsukimi followed by the World Sake Day and going into rest of the season. There are always new sake coming out. Even new batches with well-known sake could taste a tiny bit different due to slightly different rice, water, temperature etc. Though breweries always try to keep the taste as consistent as possible.
So why don’t you organise a moon-viewing party? Buy a couple of bottles of new sake (of course if you can find it, if not any good sake is just fine). Invite your best friends, cook a nice meal and enjoy the moon viewing (weather permits), writing a bit of poetry and sipping sake! Let me know how it went.
Or if you would like to catch up, I’m organising a Sugidama Tsukimi Sake Drinks on September 14 in Central London. I will put an event on the Events page as soon as I decide on the place. So stay tuned!