Equinox holiday marks changes throughout Japan
In the Land of the Rising Sun, Spring Equinox Day is a holiday that heralds traditional blossom viewing (“hanami”) in central and northern regions, and summer beach season in the south. Nationwide, it is also a time to honor one’s ancestors.
No matter where you are, however, this is a great time to get outside the gates and feel the warmth of the changing season while learning a little local culture. You may even have an opportunity to experience a side of Japan that many modern-day locals miss out on.
Both the vernal (spring) and autumnal equinoxes (March 21 and Sept. 23, respectively) are moveable calendar events that have been observed as national holidays for more than 1,000 years in Japan.
According to an old Japanese saying, “No heat or cold lasts past the equinox.” Since the equinoxes are transitions between these two extremes, they represent passing from this realm to the next in Japan’s Buddhist tradition.
The “Higan” (literally, “the other shore”) is a seven-day Buddhist memorial service held three days before, after and on the equinox to honor loved ones who have died. Devout Buddhists visit temples and offer prayers for the souls of the dead.
Records indicate Higan was widely observed as far back as the 9th century A.D. when the equinoxes became religious holidays, and the emperor called on Buddhist monks to read scriptures for these rites.
Today, many mainland Japanese visit family tombs in temples or cemeteries to offer prayers for deceased family members and friends during the week of Spring Equinox Day. Sweet rice-gluten balls, or “bota-mochi,” are eaten during this period. (The name comes from spring flower “botan,” or peony.)
There are also local Higan traditions such as the Matobi in Kitaakita City, Akita Prefecture. The name literally means “10,000 bonfires” and refers to numerous bonfires, or “danbo,” that are placed around tombs and throughout towns on the night of the spring equinox to entertain ancestors’ souls.
On Okinawa, families traditionally gather at their ancestral tombs for the Shiimii Festival. Although it is not specifically tied to the seven-day Higan period, it occurs every year during the third lunar month in early April.
At these gatherings, which often include extended family and can get quite large, families offer “ohigan kuwachii,” or equinox delicacies, such as pork ribs, sweets, fruits, rice cakes, flowers, incense and “uchikabi” (money for the other world) for their ancestors at family alters.
And while spring is just starting to warm things up on mainland Japan, it actually indicates the start of summer on Okinawa. And with it comes the official opening of many beaches. This year, Kariyushi Beach and Yonaguni Naama Beach are scheduled to open on the equinox.
After the first beaches open in mid-March, the rest usually follow suit by the end of month. With temperatures in the high 70 degrees Fahrenheit, Okinawa’s beaches are great place to catch some not-yet-too-hot rays during spring break before the mid-summer tourist crunch.
So whether warming to bonfires up north, temperate mid-mainland’s blooms or a sunny island beaches, there’s much to spring into this winter’s end. Don’t miss out – no matter where you are in the Land of the Rising Sun.