Hot days give way to cooler nights and slightly chilly mornings as September begins. Now the heads of the rice stalks are in heavy bloom and red dragonflies swoop among them. Chushu no Meigetsu is the harvest moon. On that night people bathe in its strong glow while partaking of the season’s offerings: nogi, a sheaf of native grass; dango, rice pasta dumplings with sweet red bean filling; and seasonal crops like the taro root and other local specialties. This is a preamble to the harvest celebrations to come, and has served as an ongoing seasonal acknowledgment of the importance of agrarian culture.
There’s a strong numerological element attached to the ancient beliefs, and certain dates, because of their numerical place in the cycle, conveyed either positive or negative associations. The 9th was one such “charged” day, called sekku. At first considered a bad omen because it was the largest odd integer in a given set, it later took on a positive, even celebrated association. The name went from choyo no sekku, which referred strictly to its number, to kiku no sekku, invoking the chrysanthemum, a symbol of Japan that holds vast, sacred meaning. On this day people decorate their houses with the flower, and perhaps drink sake infused with chrysanthemum, and they implore the deities for health and longevity. These days there are fewer choyo festivities across Japan, but one tradition that is celebrated at Kyoto’s Kamigamo Shrine continues to capture the country’s imagination. There the priests offer lengths of kikunose-wata, a special cotton that has been bathed in the fragrance of the chrysanthemum, overnight. Another part of the festivities is to have young boys from the local “parish” engage in the traditional sport of Sumo wrestling (which, it is not widely known, has its origins in religious practice as well). They call it karasu-zumo or “Crow Sumo”, and again, it’s not so much about athleticism as about contemplation of the earth’s wondrous cycle of change, and the hope that our care and respect for it will be regarded beneficently and rewarded with good health and triumph over evil.