As the wintry weather gives way to the warmth of spring, holidays and festivals related to the new season are observed by the Japanese. One of these is Shunbun no Hi (Vernal Equinox Day).
Day 2 – Shunbun no Hi (Vernal Equinox Day)
Shunbun no Hi, or Vernal Equinox Day, is a national holiday and is observed on or around March 20 (may vary from year to year due to leap year).1 It is the day when the sun crosses the equator, and night and day are of equal length. For 2013, Shunbun no Hi arrives on March 20.
The celebration of Vernal Equinox goes back to the eighth century and was called Shunki Korei-sai. During the Meiji era (1868-1912), this day became a national holiday which was associated with the seven-day period known as “Higan”. In 1948, a new name was given to the day of Vernal Equinox – Shunbun no Hi.2
Shun is the kanji character for “spring” and bun is the kanji character meaning “to divide”. This is a very descriptive name as Vernal Equinox marks the official divide for the end of winter and the transition into spring. Shunbun no Hi is celebrated during the week of Higan (begins three days before Shunbun no Hi and ends three days afterwards). As there are two equinox days during the year (spring and autumn), Higan is observed twice a year.
Higan means “the other shore”. Used in Buddhism, this term comes from the idea that there is a river dividing this life from the world of enlightenment. This river contains passions, pains and sorrows – by crossing to the other side, one can attain enlightenment and enter nirvana. It is understood when night and day are of equal length (spring or autumn equinox) the Buddha will make his appearance to rescue stray souls and help them cross to the other side of the river. Therefore, a visit to the family cemetery plot during Higan is not a sad, but happy event.3
To help their ancestors make the crossing to the other side, family members visit the cemetery to pray, weed graves, wash tombstones, offer incense and leave flowers. According to tradition, ohagi or botamochi (sweet rice balls covered with red bean paste), are left on the graves to give nourishment to their ancestors in their journey to the new world.4 Ohagi is also given to family and friends in observance of the occasion.
The celebration of Higan along with the change of the seasons is also observed by Japanese farmers, as a time to “pray for abundant and healthy crops”. It has also been “memorialized in a common Japanese proverb: Atsusa samusa mo Higan ma de (heat and cold last until Higan)”.4