About a month ago, I attended one of my first festivals in an arguably-rural area of Japan. My two friends and I set out for Ishiyama-dera located in the Shiga prefecture. I have a friend that lives in that prefecture, so I asked them if they wanted to go with us. It was time of the Tsukimi, or Autumn Moon Viewing, Festival! Tsukimi refers to Japanese festivals honoring the autumn moon, a kind-of variant of the Mid-Autumn Festival.
Tsukimi traditions include displaying decorations made from Japanese pampas grass (susuki) and eating rice dumplings called Tsukimi dango in order to celebrate the beauty of the moon. We were able to get some Tsukimi dango from a cart outside of the temple.
First, our journey from school took about an hour and a half by train. As we were leaving the Osaka area and transferring to smaller trains, I started noticing that some people were staring at my American friend and I. Our Japanese friend apologized, saying that “We don’t get a lot of foreigners out here.” Though it was startling it was interesting to experience. Some of the people staring did not look away even when we met their eyes, to which my Japanese friend said “Maybe if you were Japanese then they would look away, but maybe not since you are foreigners.”
However, we didn’t let this deter us from going and enjoying the festival. Once we got to the last train stop, we walked for about 15 minutes before reaching Ishiyama-dera. Once we got there we discovered the main moon-viewing day was actually the day before but still we pressed on. It was already dark at this point, and upon entering the entire temple grounds was lit up with various lanterns and mysterious light fixtures.
When we entered the main grounds we walked among paths laid out for us by lit candles. The candles were placed in all sorts of designs, including that of a Japanese maple leaf and kanji for the name of the temple.
Before walking up the many steps to the main pavilion, some sparkling lights caught our eyes. Turns out they were flickering candles from the insides of carved out bamboo shoots! Since it’s a similar time of the year, it reminded me of jack-o-lantern carving back home, though I never carved anything even remotely like these works of art.
Next we walked up the stairs to the main pavilion area. First we briefly stepped into a building where they were holding a spoken word performance. We watched for a bit, but I didn’t fully understand what was going on and one of my friends prompted me to leave. We walked around more, and got to see a nice view of Otsu from a cliff which I couldn’t properly capture by cellphone camera.
I think one of my favorite parts of the day was in fact eating the Tsukimi-dango. When we got in line I was surprised to see the cook plop a giant pile of adzuki beans on top of some nice looking pure white dango. Like with most food in Japan, I’ll try a bite at least once, and was happily surprised. I knew I liked adzuki before, but they tasted even better on the freshly made dango.