Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Halloween: Puri Style

As Cultural Ambassadors, Abbey and I felt it our duty- nay, our privilege- to spread what little Halloween cheer we might by sporting festive 100 yen headbands, not only for our holiday puri session, but to sushi as well, spreading "knowledge and awareness" to all.

As they say in Japan, Happy Haroween! (^_<)/

Monday, October 15, 2007

I'll Be Back: 行って来ます!

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In less than tweleve hours I'll be making my way through the joy that is airport security enroute to Japan-- not as a JET or an expat, but simply as a tourist...

Friday, October 12, 2007

Tsukimi Burger!?  月見バーガー

If you doubted the depth of the moon-viewing rabbit roots in Japanese culture, here's absolute proof. Leave it to culture-conscious Makudo to cash in on, I mean, celebrate even the most obscure of Japanese traditions! The autumn Mac comes in both regular tsukimi and tsukimi cheese. The advertisment reads:

"Back again this year,
The Moon-Viewing Burger.
A trembling egg
Awakens the autumn appetite!
The full-bodied cheese tsukimi
Is popular, too!"

"Oishisou!" You say, "But what's up with the flying rabbits?

According to tradition, the lunar hare was said to descend to Earth around the time of the three-day moon, and return home when the moon was full.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Rabbit in the Moon

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A little seasonal purikura for your moon-viewing enjoyment. Notice the NOVA rabbit in the lower right-hand corner gazing wistfully at the moon, as if longing to return home after ripping-off unsuspecting Japanese and gaijin alike, getting caught, and going bankrupt.

I'm sure that anyone interested in Japanese culture has noticed the prevalence of rabbits and moons in both popular and traditional culture. They're everywhere, from anime (Sailor Moon's Tsukino Usagi, which can be translated as 'Moon Rabbit') to traditonal sweets. Japanese people will happily point to the legend of the mochi-making rabbitt on the moon as the origin of their cultural obsession, even though most of them will readily admit that they've never been able to see it. (Perhaps the image at the right will give you the upper hand!)

Japan is not alone in its moon-rabbit maddness, which seems to have spread through Asia with the advent of Buddhism. Originating in India, the legend struck a chord in certain cultures, slowly shaping itself in the image of each as it spread to China before ultimately being transmitted to Japan. The custom of moon-viewing itself has roots in China's traditional mind-autumn celebration, when the people treated themselves to moon cakes, but when the custom was transmitted to Japan, mochi ( sweet, pounded rice cakes) quickly took their place. The Chinese believed the rabbit in the moon was busy mixing the Elixer of Immortality, a reflection of the long history and influence of Chinese medicine. In Japan, where no such tradition existed, they envisioned a rabbit making mochi much as they did-- pounding it with mallets until is reached its smooth, sticky perfection. This process, called mochitsuki (餅つき), lent itself nicely to a clever play on words, which can also mean full moon (望月).

"Moon Rabbit" mochi

The story goes that in a previous existences as a boddhisattva, Shakyamuni (the Buddha) taught his followers about a wise rabbit who lived in a forest with three of his friends: the monkey, the fox, and the otter. The reincarnation of a bodhisattva himself, the rabbit posessed a wisdom that would surely lead him to enlightenment. In the afternoon, the friends went about their buisness alone, but in the evenings they gathered together to hear the rabbit speak about life and morality. On the day of the full moon, the rabbit proposed that instead of eating alone, they gather their food together and distribute it among the hungry. His three friends agreed.

Sugary tsukimi wagashi, Japanese sweets shaped as bunnies, tsukimi dango moon-viewing rice dumplings), chestnuts, mushrooms, fall flowers and of course, the full moon veiled in pampass grass.

The monkey climbed trees to gather mangos, the fox gathered the leftovers the workers had left in their feilds, and the otter caught fish in the river. Since the rabbit ate grass, he didn't really have to go out of his way to get food, but he knew that no human would want to eat grass. "If someone hungry comes to beg for food, I will offer them my body. I'm sure lots of people would like to eat rabbit meat!" Then he told everyone what he decided.

Hearing this, the King of Heaven was suprised. To test their sincerity, he disguised himself as a lowly beggar and visited each of them, pleading for food. The monkey, the fox and the otter all happily offered not only part of their foods, but all they had gathered. Pleased, he went to the rabbit. "Might you have some food for a poor beggar?" He asked.

"I understand," the rabbit said. 'I'll give you something delicious. Please, make a fire." With his supernatural powers, the King of Heaven made a roaring fire right before his eyes. The rabbit immediately jumped in, but it was not hot. "You're fire is powerful, but it's not even hot enough to singe a single strand of my hair!" he exclaimed.

"You know, wise man, I am no beggar. I came down from heaven to test the sincerity of your words. Doing good deeds is very important. You're deeds will not be forgotten." Wringing the mountain, he used its ink to paint the shape of a rabbit on the moon, a memorial to the rabbit's goodness for all generations.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Otsukimi: Honorable Moon Viewing: お月見

Incredible image courtesy of Flickr's Tumpaksinen. It's visual haiku!

After a seemingly endless summer of humid heat and hazy skies, the first full moon to grace a cool, clear, autumn night can be a magnificent sight, especially in the right surroundings. Otsukimi, or "Honorable Moon-Viewing", has been celebrated in Japan since the beginning of the 10th century.

Long ago, the people of ancient Japan had a deep, emotional attachment to the ever-changing moon, a mystical heavenly body that measured their lives in times and seasons. The full moon was considered the most beautiful of all, and the most beautiful of all full moons was mid-Autumn's Chushu no Meigetsu, the Harvest moon, traditionally rising on the 15th evening of the 8th month (according to Japan's old lunar calendar).

The custom of holding banquets to admire the moon became common during Japan's Golden Era, the Heian Period (794-1192). Imperial aristocrats enjoyed elegant, moon-lit parties called Mizuki and Tsuki-no-utage, composing waka (31-syllable Japanese poems), listening to noble court music, and drinking sacred sake aboard leisure boats from which they watched the moon’s reflection in the moving water.

Marked with decorations of Japanese pampas grass and offerings of rice dumplings, taro, chestnuts, soybeans, and sake, today’s moon viewing parties are held to enjoy good times with friends and family. In the past, farmers made offerings of pampas grass and bush clover to the full moon to ensure a good harvest. Now a small arrangement of susuki, hagi (pampas grass and bush clover), and the seven fall flowers are offered in hopes that wishes will come true.

Uh-oh, She's Reminiscing, Ya'll...

Even without the help of these autumn talismans, many a wish can come true beneath a Harvest Moon. During my first year as a JET, I sat alone on the dry bank of a freshly harvested rice field in Higashino, where my evening walks often led me through narrow streets spotted with traditional houses, surrounded on all sides by rice fields, silhoutted foothills and far-off mountains. I admired the moon, recalling, as I often did during my experience in Japan, one of my favorite Thoreau quotes: "Our truest life is when we are in dreams awake". I tried to drink it all in, fully aware that my time in Japan would be beautiful but breif, yet sure that it would be with me forever.

In my second year, I watched Autumn's first full moon rise over Cambodia's Tonle Sap, only to see it melt away the next morning as the sun rose over Angkor Wat.

Ironically, I was so busy planning lessons during my last Otsukimi in Japan that I barely had a chance to enjoy it, something that speaks volumes about my final year there. I remember catching sight of it as I drove home from the grocery store, wishing for the time and peace of mind to truely enjoy it as I once had.

Thankfully, I was granted both this year as I watched the moon grow gradually from a sliver of silver in the obsidian sky to a hauntingly pale, celestial apparition shrouded in veils of cloud and night. It finally revealed itself during a moon-lit roadtrip from Nebraska to Minnesota, bobbing bashfully along the shadowy ridges of birch, maple, and pine before sailing out to open skies. Reflected in 10,000 lakes, close enough to the horizon to seem colossal, it's etheral impermanence filled the night with a lonely beauty too perfect for words.
Somewhere over Minnesota, September 27th, 2007

It was a great night. It's good to be back.