During the Heian period (平安時代 794-1185), moon viewing parties came into fashion. The eighth month of the lunar calender (Gregorian September) the moon was thought to be at its brightest. Aristocrats would gather to recite poetry and make offerings to the moon in order to secure a good harvest.
Japanese mythology claims a mochi (rice cake) making rabbit lives in the moon instead of the western man in the moon.
The traditional way to throw a Tsukimi party is to decorate your house with pampas grass and eat Tsukimi dango (white rice dumplings).
Other tsukimi time foods are Tsukimi udon/soba; noodles served in a broth with a raw cracked egg and in Kyushu they serve eggs on yakisoba and many fast food restaurants have tsukimi menu items such as Mcdonald’s “tsukimi burger”.
Obon (お盆) is a Japanese Buddhist custom to honour ones dead ancestors. It has been celebrated in Japan or over 500 hundred years; in recent years the traditional Buddhist Confucian customs have evolved into a family reunion holiday during which people travel back to their hometowns to visit relatives and clean the graves of passed family members.
The customs supposedly originate from the story of Maha Maudgalyayana, an important disciple of the Buddha, who used his supernatural powers to look upon his deceased mother. He discovered she had fallen into the Realm of Hungry Ghosts and was suffering. He asked the Buddha how he could release his mother from this realm. Buddha instructed him to make offerings to the many Buddhist monks who had just completed their summer retreat, on the fifteenth day of the seventh month. The disciple did this and saw his mother’s release. He also began to see the true nature of her past unselfishness and the many sacrifices that she had made for him.
After she had moved up from the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts (what a name!) he was so happy he danced for joy This birthed a new custom know as Bon Odori.
Bon Odori is different from region to region. Typically the dancers, dressed in light-weight summer kimonos known as yukata, line up in a circle around a wooden scaffold band stand. Large drums or taiko beat out the rhythm and the dancers proceed around and perform set dances. Each region has its own songs and moves. Tokyo has Tokyo Ondo, Hokkaido, Soran Bushi and Gifu has Gujo odori.
The moves are also influenced by the history of a region. One of the most famous dances is the Tanko Bushi from the Miike Mine area in Kyushu. Its moves depict mining life, digging, cart pushing, lantern hanging, etc.
Bon Odori has moved away from its religious roots and is now seen as a summer dance that is performed at most summer festivals. Current pop songs are also adapted to have an odori of their own.
Another Obon tradition involves making horses and cows out of cucumbers and aubergine. These are left on family altars, they are meant to be vehicles for spirits to get around. Also lanterns called bonchochin are placed beside the altar to help guide the spirits home.
After Obon the animals and lanterns are either floated in the ocean or rivers or burnt to ensure a safe journey back to the world of the spirits.
Obon is celebrated at 3 different times in differing parts of Japan. When the lunar calendar was replaced during the Meiji Restoration, regions reacted differently. The “official” Obon week is around August 15th. Although it is not a public holiday, leave is generally given and it is one of the busiest travel times in Japan with many places increasing prices.
Throughout July and August, the separated lovers Orihime and Hikoboshi can reunite.
Orihime, the daughter of Emperor Tentei, was a skilled weaver and made lovely clothes for her father. On day as she sat alongside the the river of heaven (he milky way), sadness hadn’t had time to fall in love. Tentei, believed to be the ruler of the heavens arranged a marriage for her with Hikoboshi who lived across the river. The couple were happy but, Orihime was neglected her weaving (sixth century mythical princesses couldn’t have it all), angering Tentei so much that he decided to separate the couple putting them back on opposite sides of the river (he really loved clothes).
Tentei decreed that the couple would only be allowed to see each other on one night each year – on the seventh day of the seventh month. On that evening a boatman (the moon) comes to ferry Orihime over the river to her beloved Hikoboshi. But if Orihime has not given her best to her weaving Tentei may make it rain causing the river to flood so the boatman cannot make the trip (seriously Tentei was like obsessed with his wardrobe). In this case the kasasagi (a group of magpies) may still fly to the milky way to make a bridge for Orihime to cross (cuz fuck patriarchy).
Street festivals with food stalls and traditional games are held all over Japan, the biggest being in Sendai (of earthquake fame). Streets and schools everywhere hang huge bamboo branches on which are hung wishes called, tanzaku. At midnight or the next day they are burnt or set off down a river. Every area has its own Tanabata customs.