In the Land of the Rising Sun, September marks the waxing of autumn and the traditional harvest season in which local customs such as “tsukimi” (moon viewing), “inekari” (rice harvesting) and “Higan” memorial services take place throughout Japan.
These can be ideal opportunities to get outside the gates, learn something about the local culture and maybe even experience a side of Japan that some modern Japanese miss out on these days. With that in mind, here are some basics to get you started.
It’s no surprise that in Japan – where more than 8.5 million tons of rice was produced in 2012, alone – much ado is made about harvesting this prized staple food. Its cultivation was once even considered sacred, involving invocations of an “inadama,” or rice spirit. When the grains began maturing in the fall, for example, green sheaves were offered to this deity whose generosity was celebrated at season’s end.
A reflection of this practice can still be found in some traditional performing arts today; and “Inekari,” or rice harvesting, remains a traditional event in farming regions where harvest festivals are held annually. A few farms even allow visitors to join the time-honored tradition of harvesting rice.
Rice harvesting can be done manually with sickles, mechanically with a harvester or by using a combination of both. Regardless of the method, a number of guidelines are followed to preserve quality.
“We need to harvest rice at the right time with the right moisture content,” explains Shigeru Oyama, a rice farmer in Ibaraki Prefecture. “After threshing, we have to clean and dry the grain immediately.”
While most rice is harvested between September and October throughout Japan, Okinawa’s warm temperatures afford two harvests a year.
“In addition to harvesting 2,140 tons of rice from late May to early September,” says Okinawa Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Division’s Seikou Gima, “we also harvested a second, 318-ton crop between late October (2012) and early February.”
Ishigaki Island is famed for its rice. It produces about 1,300 tons of annually – about 60 percent of all the rice grown in Okinawa Prefecture – due to its fertile soil and temperate climate which allow some fields to produce three crops annually. In the true spirit Japanese rice cultivation, Ishigki is also famed for its many “hounensai,” or harvest, festivals that occur island-wide – especially from late July to early September.
Tsukimi is a long-held custom observed on the 15th night of eighth month (“jugo-ya”) and the 13th night of the ninth month (“jusan-ya”) of Japan’s old lunar calendar. This year, the dates fall on Sept. 19 and Oct. 17, respectively. On these evenings, many take in the splendor of the Harvest Moon (and the less-famous “Hunters’ Moon” in October) in all its awesome, orangish glory from their homes or yards.
Traditionally, tsukimi ranks with “yukimi” (snow viewing) and “hanami” (cherry-blossom viewing)” as one of the three most favored settings for declarations of love and poetic outpourings of the soul.
This is also considered a time to wish for a rich harvest and prosperity for the coming year. It’s customary to set out “tsukimi dango,” or moon-viewing dumplings, taro, soybeans, chestnuts, persimmons and other round-shaped seasonal foods, along with sake and sprigs of “susuki” grass on a portable table. The table is placed on a porch or in a corridor from which the moon is viewed.
There are a number of other customs that may be observed depending on where you are. As a kind of pre-harvest-fest activity, for example, the sprigs of susuki grass represent rice and are sometimes hung from the eaves of a home to ward off illness after an evening of moon viewing.
One old custom, slightly reminiscent of trick or treating in the States, encourages children to go around the neighborhood “stealing” the dumplings and other offerings on the tables. The stolen offerings are considered to have been accepted by the moon, thus the more stolen, the better.
In Okinawa, the light of the Harvest Moon was once used to divine households’ fortunes for the coming year in some areas. Locals would make rice cakes with sweet beans called “fuchagi,” offer them to the moon, then climb a nearby hill to survey their village by moonlight. It was said that residents of homes that appeared dark would be prosperous, while those whose houses appeared bright would be less fortunate.
There is a saying in Japan that, “No heat or cold lasts over the equinox.” The autumnal and spring equinoxes are considered the border, and thus the end, of the respective hot and cold seasons. In Japan’s Buddhist tradition, these times also represent passing from one realm to the next.
Higan (literally, “other shore”) is a seven-day Buddhist memorial service held on the equinoxes (three days before and after). The concept can be likened to Memorial Day in the United States, in that it is a special time set aside to remember friends and family who have died.
Both the Vernal Equinox (March 21) and Autumnal Equinox (Sept. 23) have been observed as holidays for more than 1,000 years in Japan. Originally, the Higan ceremony called on devout Buddhists to visit temples and offer prayers for the souls of the dead. Records indicate Higan was widely observed as far back as the 9th century A.D. when the equinoxes became religious holidays and the emperor called on Buddhist monks to read scriptures for these rites.
Today, people visit family tombs in temples or common cemeteries to offer prayers for deceased family members and friends. Sweet rice-gluten balls, or “ohagi,” are commonly eaten during these periods. (The name ohagi comes from autumn flower “hagi,” or bush clover.)
Fall foods for that autumn mood
In Japan, certain foods are only available during specific seasons, helping to give an identity to different times of the year. Here are a few fall foods to look at for as the season progresses that will help get you into the local autumn state of mind.
“Shikuwasa,” sometimes called a Taiwan tangerine or flat lemon, is a small, green citrus fruit whose sour taste is used to garnish dishes like sashimi and fried foods. It is also used to make jam or juice, which can be sweetened with honey or sugar or diluted with water to make it more drinkable.
“Handama” is a leafy vegetable that can be deep fried like tempura, stir-fried, or included in a salad. It is regarded as a distinctive ingredient in Okinawan cooking.
“Urizun mame” (winged bean) is a square-shaped bean whose bitterness usually requires it to be cooked before being used in other dishes. It can be blended in miso soup, salad, or in stir-fried dishes.
“Umi budo” (sea grape) is a local specialty that is sometimes called “green caviar.” It is used in seafood dishes such as sashimi or as a topping for rice. It is even used to make ice cream.
Other specialties of the season, according to the Okinawa Tourist Information website, include star fruit, “atemoya” (custard apple), “shima togarashi” (island chilis), “taman” (a fish that grows as large as 30 inches and is often made into tempura), and “kihada maguro” (a type of tuna often cut into raw slices and served on a bed of rice).
Certain flowers bloom in autumn, including “ohamabo,” “tokurikawata” and “mokusenna,” reddish and yellowish flowers that help give the island some color.
One food that is available all year round is soba noodles, which are so popular in Okinawa that Oct. 17 has been called Okinawa Soba Day. Apparently, Okinawa-style soba noodles, which are made from wheat flour rather than buckwheat flour, were not recognized as soba by Japan’s soba association. On Oct. 17, 1978, they were finally granted official recognition. In Okinawa, soba means thick wheat noodles, and if you want Japanese-style buckwheat noodles you have to order “Nihon soba,” or Japanese soba.
Autumn is also the season for picking “mikan,” or mandarin oranges. You can pick mikan at Motobu village in northern Okinawa. At Mikan no Sato Izumi (Mikan Orange Town), on Route 84, they will introduce you to fruit farms where you can pick fresh mikan that day. It costs 250 yen for adults and 200 yen for kids.
– Stripes Okinawa
View the moon with royalty
Shurijo Castle “Chushu no En” (Mid-Autumn Banquet): This event at Naha City Okinawa’s Shurijo Castle Park reenacts a banquet held for envoys from China under the full moon in the 16th century. It includes classical Ryukyuan dance and an annual Rykyu King and Queen contest. Sept. 21, 22 from 6:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. For details, call 098-886-2020 or visit: oki-park.jp/shurijo-park/event/chushuu.html
Itoman Otsuna-hiki (tug-of-war) in Gyoji, Itoman: A parade of 2,000 folk dancers is held on the street between Itoman Elementary School and National Road No. 331 from 2 p.m. to 4:30 p.m., followed by the tug-of-war main event from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. A giant 590-foot-long, nearly 5-foot in diameter rope weighing 10 tons is used. The festival is to pray for the harvest and prosperous fishing. Sept. 19. Take the monorail from Naha Airport to Akamine Station, then a 20 minute ride from the Itoman Bus Terminal.