In Line With the Far Side
It is the week of the vernal equinox and you might catch a whiff of incense in the air as you are strolling about the old neighborhoods of Tsukuba. Don’t worry, you are not having olfactory hallucinations. You might also notice that the local graveyards have been adorned with fresh flowers and fruits. This is because the 3 days before and after the equinox days in Japan make up the one week periods called O-Higan (お彼岸), which literally means the Other Shore. This is a Buddhist expression refering to the other world, which contrasts with this one, shikan (此岸).
According to Japanese Buddhist belief, the Pure Land Paradise (極楽浄土,gokuraku jodo) lies in the west, and since the sun sets directly to the west on the vernal equinox, around that day a window of opportunity is opened for contact with departed spirits (the same happens in autumn when the suns sets directly east). That is why this week is a time for the Japanese to continue their ongoing relations and show of affection for their deceased relatives and ancestors.
Many of your friends, colleagues and acquaintances will be visiting their family graves this week, some of them travelling great distances, for this traditional show of fillial piety called Ohaka-mairi (お墓参り). Some Japanese who have moved far from their natal homes have actually had their ancestors remains tranferred to more conveniently located cemeteries in order to be better able to care for them during ohigan, obon (in August), New Years, and memorial days (命日).
Ohaka-mairi is a fairly standardized affair now. The living relatives prepare flowers and candles, incense and maybe some favorite foods of the departed. The area around the graves is then swept (many temples always have brooms available). The gravestones are then cleaned. Flowers are placed and water poured into a special hole in the center of the grave. Incense is lit and water is poured over the headstones. Family members then pay their respects by squatting down, and bowing their heads with hands pressed together.
Another interesting custom which everyone can enjoy is the eating of special sweets, large oval shaped lumps of sweet beans which are available at department stores, sweet shops, and convenience stores. Strictly speaking, they should be called bota-mochi in this season (because botan, peonies, bloom in this season). The name of the same sweets in autumn, ohagi (for the bush clover which bloom in that season), is also commonly used. In fact I noticed that these sweets on sale at 7-11 are mistakenly labelled ohagi.
Keep this in mind when chatting with Japanese friends. You might want to ask them if they did ohaka mairi or enjoyed botamochi. It will probably be highly appreciated!