Names in this site follow the Japanese custom of family name first.

March 20, 2012

Japanese Customs: Vernal Equinox Day (Shunbun no Hi)

Shunbun no Hi or the "Vernal Equinox" (when day and night are of equal length) is a Japanese national holiday established in the Meiji-period "so that people could commune with nature and show their love for all living things." It is usually celebrated on March 20 or 21. Similarly, in September, there is an Autumnal Equinox Day (Shubun no Hi).

Both equinox days are associated with the Buddhist Higan practices, held traditionally two times a year in the same period.

[Nishi Otani Cemetery, Kyoto]

Higan is a Buddhist term literally meaning "Other Shore." Buddhists believe that our worldy life is symbolically divided from the world of Enlightenment by a river full of pain and sorrow. Only those who manage to pass to the "Other Side" can be free from attachments and enter Nirvana.

Why was Higan celebrated around this time? That was because of the popular belief that when night and day are of equal length the Lord Buddha will appear to help souls make the crossing to the Other Shore.

Higan was already observed in Japan in the 8th c., and further institutionalized by Imperial Order in 806.

In this period, the Japanese usually visit the graves of their ancestors, clean the tombstone, offer incense and flowers. And as the Buddha on this day saves all souls, the visit to the cemetery is considered a joyful event.

From the old ritual of offering food to the ancestors developed the custom of eating botamochi, a ball of soft rice covered with sweetened bean paste.

Shunbun no Hi is also the time that the chill of winter finally fades away. Temperatures gradually rise and the colorful riot of cherry blossoms is near...