At Philadelphia’s Shofuso Japanese House and Garden, a crowd gathered just after dark on a recent chilly evening. It was the annual Otsukimi (月見) “moon viewing” festival, held throughout Japan and the Japanese diaspora every autumn, usually on the 13th or 15th of October, to celebrate the harvest moon.
The rain had just cleared, and thick clouds kept the blood moon out of sight as partygoers—stocking-foot on the tatami mats, some in kimonos and some in Western dress—gazed across the shimmering, lantern-lit pond, munched traditional rice dumplings (Tsukimi dango) and other treats, and watched performances by Japanese dancers and a young shamisen player.
By evening’s end, the clouds had parted and the moon at last had risen over the city, perhaps pleased by the offerings of seasonal fruits and susuki grass. The mood was contemplative and peaceful, with maybe just a touch of melancholy, as is always with the approach of winter.
The scene brings to mind “Autumn,” a short story by Akutagawa Ryunosuke, an early 20th century Japanese writer whose story “In A Grove” was the basis for Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 classic film Rashōmon. The contemporary realism of “Autumn”, set at the start of World War I in Osaka and Tokyo, distinguishes it from Ryunosuke’s better-known works, which feature pre-modern or fantastical backdrops.
“Autumn” is the tale of a gifted young writer, Nobuko, trapped in an unhappy marriage to an under-educated man who mocks her literary aspirations. Meanwhile, her cousin Shunkichi, her college boyfriend and the love of her life, goes on to become a successful author in his own right. When Nobuko learns that her beloved, but childish younger sister has married Shunkicki, she travels to visit them at their house in a suburb of Tokyo.
That night Nobuki stands in the moonlit Autumn garden with Shunkichi for the last time.
Taking off her split-toe socks and slipping into the clogs that lay on the stepping stone, she felt the cold dew on her feet. The moon was shining over the top of a thin and withered hinoki cypress in a corner of the garden. Shunkichi stood under it and looked up at the faint light of the night sky. My, how high the grass is!” said Nobuko, walking gingerly toward him, as though repelled by the overgrown garden. Shunkichi continued to gaze at the sky. “Hmm, Thirteenth Night,” he murmured simply.
Charles De Wolf’s 2007 translation of the Ryunosuke story is spare and evocative as haiku: when the ill-fated lovers return to the house, they find Nobuko’s sister “standing in front of her husband’s desk, gazing vaguely at the electric light. Into the lampshade a green leafhopper had crawled.”