By Avi Landau
It is the week of the autumnal 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 rises and sets directly along the east-west axis the west on the equinoxes, around those two days a window of opportunity is opened for contact with departed spirits. 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 O-Hagi in this season (because the flowers O-Hagi, bush clover, are symbolic of autumn), and Bota-Mochi in spring ( As Botan, peonies, are representative of that season), though I have noticed that many Japanese people always call these sweets O-Hagi and have I have often found that in spring these sweets are mistakenly labelled ohagi at convenience store and supermarkets..
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!
I have written more about O-Hagi and Bota-Mochi in this post:
Because these amazing flowers bloom each year right around the time of the autumnal equinox (O-Higan), they are called higan-bana in Japanese. They can be seen in this season growing along roads, in parks, at temples, and most appropriately- at cemeteries!