Around the Time of the Spring Equinox, All Things Begin to Stir in Japan- EVEN THE GRAVEYARDS, as O-Higan begins
By Avi Landau
As the daylight hours grow longer, and the air, soil, and water gradually begin to warm up, all around us things begin to stir. Plants, animals, and humans gradually emerge from their state of FUYUGOMORI (冬篭り, hibernation, holing up or bundling up for the winter), and by the week of the spring equinox, when daytime and nighttime hours are just about equal, Tsukuba (and the rest of the Kanto Plain) is bursting with life and activity — EVEN THE GRAVEYARDS !
This is because, in Japan, the two equinox days, and the three days before and after them, are a traditional time to visit the family graves (O-Haka Mairi , お墓参り), clean them and the area around them, and make offerings of flowers, incense, and even the favorite foods and/or beverages of the deceased. Thus, during the equinox weeks, or O-Higan (お彼岸) , the cemeteries of Japan are teeming with activity (sweeping, sprinkling, and praying), smells (various types of incense) and color (all sorts of unusual flowers left as offerings).
Today, March 18th, is Higan Iri, the first day of the Higan Period and as I went around Tsukuba`s old neighborhoods this week in search of new discoveries I could see women in just about every graveyard I passed- sweeping the grounds and scrubbing the stones- all in preparation for this very important part of the Japanese annual cycle of events.
Though the word HIGAN (彼岸) is of Indian origin and refers to THE OTHER SHORE (as opposed to THIS SHORE, the world we live in), or the Buddhist Paradise, this way of observing the equinox days by visiting the family graves is UNIQUELY Japanese. It seems to have developed as an amalgamation of traditional ancestor worship, ancient agricultural rites, and Buddhism.
In ancient times, farmers would visit the graves of their ancestors on the equinox days, in spring, just before preparing the fields for planting, and then again in autumn, just before the harvest, and pray that the spirits intervene in helping to bring about abundant crops. After the introduction of Buddhism, and especially the concept of the Saiho-Gokuraku-Jodo (the Western Paradise), the equinoxes became more significant still, as the sun sets almost exactly DUE WEST on those days, giving the universe a perfect alignment with paradise.
The first recorded Buddhist ceremonies referred to as O-Higan were held in the early ninth century by the Emperor Heizei, in an effort to pacify the spirit of the Emperor Sudo, who had died after having been accused of involvement in an assassination. However, some scholars suggest that Prince Shotoku (Shotoku Taishi 573-621), an early and enthusiastic promoter of Buddhism, held Buddhist style rites on the day that the Japanese traditionally worshiped their ancestors, in order to link the two.
It is also interesting that in the Heian Period, Higan lasted for eleven days after the equinox days. It was only in the 1830s that Higan began to be celebrated for a one-week period, the 3 days before and after the equinoxes. The reason for the additional six days around the actual equinox days is that they are meant to represent the Six Cardinal Virtues of Buddhism (rokuharamitsu, 六波羅蜜).
I have written about O-Higan before, so for additional information please have a look at this post
And when making conversation with Japanese friends, acquaintances, or students, dont forget to ask if they have visited their family graves. In Japanese you would say: O-Haka Mairi shimashita Ka? More probably than not, (especially in the case of older people), they will be happy you asked.
And as is the case with nearly all of Japan`s traditional events, there is a special sweet to go with the occassion. I have written more about the Equinox weeks` special treat in a separate article. Read it here.
For more on these mysterious stick-figure signposts (which are found only in the Tsukuba area) read my older article.