Celebrating Shunbun No Hi in Japan

Mar 18th, 2009 | By | Category: History & Culture

Omotesando Cemetery Shunbun no hi is the holiday celebrating the spring equinox in Japan is part of a seven day period known as Haru no Higan (Spring Higan).  On Shunbun no hi (March 20th in 2009), the hours of light equal those of the of darkness and it is a time to mark the changing of the seasons.  Each September, another higan is celebrated, this time marking the autumn equinox.

While the origin of Haru no Higan is unknown, it has been celebrated since the 8th century when the Emperor of Japan mandated it’s observation.

So how do the Japanese spend Shunbun no hi?  Many people head back to their hometowns and spend a portion of the day tending to the graves of their ancestors according to ancient Buddhist tradition. In Buddhism, the term higan means “other shore” and refers to the belief that there is a river between this life an the next.

“This river is full of illusion, passion, and sorrow, and only by crossing to the other shore can one gain enlightenment and enter nirvana. It is said that, when night and day are equal the Buddha appears on earth to save stray souls and help them make the crossing.”

Source: Shunbun-no-hi (Higan)

To help their ancestors make the crossing, family members visit the cemetery to pray, weed graves, wash tombstones, light incense and leave flowers.  According to tradition, food, in the form of ohagi or botamochi (sweet rice balls covered with red bean paste), is left to help nourish their ancestors journey to the next world.

Pictured below are cemetery buckets, marked with family crests, that will get put to good use on Shunbun no hi.

Cemetery Buckets

Given Japan’s long history as an agricultural society the spring equinox is also celebrated by Japanese farmers and is an opportunity to pray for abundant and healthy crops.  The celebration of higan and the associated changing of the seasons is so ingrained in society that it is memorialized in a common Japanese proverb:

“Atsusa samusa mo Higan ma de”

Heat and cold last until Higan

Image Credit:  Personal Collection

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  1. Wow, you just gave me exactly what I need for a point in my novel I’d been struggling with! Great article! Thanks!

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