On September 27th, the moon was at its biggest and brightest, the closest it would be to the earth for 2015. On this day, many people in Japan practiced Tsukimi–quite literally, “moon viewing.”
But this story doesn’t take place on the 27th. It takes place on the 26th.
Being a big fan of our closest celestial friend and one to take notice of it at any time of year, I always loved that there are so many cultural activities in east Asia surrounding the act of viewing the moon. I have spent four previous harvest moons in Japan and noticed all the specials in the stores from Tsukimi Burgers (burgers with egg, because the egg is round like the moon) to dango with rabbits on the packages (instead of a man on the moon, the shadows are said to resemble a rabbit bounding rice cake, though please allow me to point out it should be a hare and not a rabbit because rabbits are not native to Japan). However, I had never engaged in the act of offering dango to the moon, appreciating susuki (pampas grass) decorations under the moonlight, or anything the tea ceremony offers surrounding this nature-viewing event.
Unsurprisingly, there are many tools and tastes set aside specifically for moon viewing, or in celebration of the moon. For instance, chestnuts and sweet potatoes are also in season around this time, so they are often incorporated in the decorations or sweets. Furthermore, the containers for tea that might usually have a gold interior instead have a silver interior because the moon is associated with a silver color. Then of course, you have a plethora of scrolls and tea bowls inspired by the moon or by viewing it, thereby making for a wide of array of decorations that are only used at this time of year.
Of course I was looking forward to all of that, but I was not entirely looking forward to the ceremony itself. Or rather, I was not not looking forward to putting on a kimono immediately after returning from a week out of town, fighting with the obi I had been having trouble with, and somehow looking presentable for a five hour ceremony after a five hour bus ride. Ironically, Japan’s “silver week” of three holidays in a row fell into the same week as the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar, meaning my plans were stacked right on top of each other. A bit of an oversight on my part, and I cursed my over-confidence in my time management abilities as I hurriedly showered and ironed my kimono and tried to control my not-fully-dried hair. Luck was on my side, however, because I managed to tie my obi alright on the first try and only had the obi-age left to tie in the taxi.
I did not, however, bring a camera. Please bear with my verbal account instead of photos that would not do justice to a the night scene anyway.
We–about twenty people–held the ceremony at a restaurant built in the mid Edo period called Rinsuitei, which has a tea ceremony appropriate tsukubai (water basin) in the garden over looking the mouth of the Ohashi River and Lake Shinji. We heard many stories about this building and its history as the night went on, such as how they had switched to a lower tsukubai in recent years, as the term refers to a place where one must “stoop down” into a humble position as they wash their hands. Originally, they had a tall one in place, as the feudal lords of Matsue would often visit that place. They could not be expected to stoop down. Instead, they would stand there as one servant poured the water over their hands, and another would dry them with a towel. Even in hand-washing, a lord cannot be expected to get his own hands dirty. Obviously.
Our space was spread across enough rooms that we had three moon and moon-viewing related scrolls to view, as well as multiple spots for seasonal plants as decorations—in the waiting area in the hall where gourds were on display, along the hallways where Chinese lantern plants were rich in red and gold tones, in the waiting room where a flush array of wild flowers looked just as wild as if they were still in the dirt, in the alcove surrounded by windows where plump vegetables and dumplings were offered before the moon, and in the ceremony room itself, where there was a hanging boat vase set on the floor of the tokonoma (decorative alcove). I’ve seen these used hanging in the tokonoma, but this one was set with its chains trailing it like waves, implying that the boat had stopped so that the people (or in this case, flowers) on board could view the moon.
We started with the arrangement of the charcoal to prepare for the ceremony, and that is a ceremony in and of itself. This was followed by dinner, and it was the most delicious tea ceremony meal I have had yet. I even enjoyed the sake, which I typically don’t have much of a taste for! I had very pleasant conversation with O-san, the very kind old man who started practicing tea ceremony the year before I did.
While the three hosts who set everything up for us were cleaning up after dinner and preparing for the tea, the rest of us headed back out into the garden and the waiting room. The moon was visible over the roof of the annex next to us, making its only appearance from behind the clouds that we could see. The clouds surrounding it nonetheless lit up just as brightly.
The fourth generation owner of Rinsuitei joined us for the koicha (thick tea, most formal) part of the ceremony so that he could explain the scrolls and their meanings to us. He went us to tell us more about the feudal lords that dined there back in the day, and that the sign with the name of the establishment hanging inside the tea room was the calligraphy of Lord Fumai. O-san and I sat on either side of him, highlighting his words with expressions of “ehhhhhh?” to show our appreciation for the newly acquired knowledge.
“What we really don’t know much about is why my great-grandfather purchased this place in the Meiji Period.”
“Oh? There’s no information about that? He must have been rich to purchase it.”
“Yes, but we have no idea what he was doing before that to have gotten so rich,” he finished with an expression that suggested dubious ideas he may have entertained throughout the years.
The thick tea was extremely smooth and left a sweet aftertaste that spread throughout my palette, and we observed the tools by candlelight. The dim lights highlighted the silent movements of the host preparing the tea, providing just enough illumination to see each other’s faces.
We turned the lights back on during the more relaxed usu-cha (thin tea) portion, so we all got a very good look at the tea cups passed around, the one being served to the highest guest showing off an Edo craftsman’s sense of humor since you had to finish drinking all the tea before you could see the moon (the character 月 written on the bottom of the bowl). Part way through, as often happens in parties for twenty people or so among a school or two, some of the other students were asked to jump in and prepare tea for the other guests so that the busy hosts could have a break. I was one of these, and I could tell by using the tools–the sleek dark tea scoop, the textured tea caddy–that they were of a higher caliber than what I usually use in practice.
We shared the dango which one of the hosts had made as the moon offering, and to wash it down, most of us had second cups of the thinly prepared matcha. Because using and observing a variety of tools and decorations is part of the fun of the tea ceremony, the hosts asked everyone before they set out the second cups of tea before them, “This is different from the tea bowl you had before, right? If not, I’ll give it to the person next to you and get a new one.” I really, really liked the second bowl I used and perhaps took more time than usually granted to observe it, as it was like two bowls in one, or one melted over the first one or something.
The evening ran long, and the shy 14th day moon hid behind the clouds for most of the celebration. Despite all the caffeine, I was feeling much more relaxed at the end of the ceremony than I was when I arrived that afternoon. It reminded me why I was attracted to the tea ceremony in the first place.
It grounds you to the moment, treating each one as something that will never come again. It’s a brief respite from the world, cleansing all your senses with the quiet sounds of water, the sweet and bitter tastes and fragrances, and the carefully selected tools and decor to behold in your hands or just with your eyes. Despite the respite, it grounds you to your place in time and space, and brings you together with good company as you take in the details of the moment and appreciate those details together.
There may be more tsukimi tea ceremonies in the future, but this one is now in the past, a moment never to be repeated, but one I’ll remember for a long time.