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Higan (Spring and Autumn Equinoxes)

Type of Holiday: Calendar/Seasonal; Religious (Buddhist)
Date of Observation: Around March 20 or 21 and around September 23
Where Celebrated: Japan
Symbols and Customs: Higanbana, Memorial Tablets, Ohagi
Related Holidays: Autumn Equinox, Vernal Equinox Higan


Higan is part of the tradition of Buddhism, one of the four largest religious families in the world. Buddhism is based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama (c. 563-483 B . C . E .) who came to be known as Buddha, or "The Enlightened One." The basic tenets of Buddhism can be summarized in the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. The Four Noble Truths are 1) the truth and reality of suffering; 2) suffering is caused by desire; 3) the way to end suffering is to end desire; and 4) the Eightfold Path shows the way to end suffering. The Eightfold Path consists of 1) right view or right understanding; 2) right thoughts and aspirations; 3) right speech; 4) right conduct and action; 5) right way of life; 6) right effort; 7) right mindfulness; and 8) right contemplation.

The spring and autumn equinoxes are celebrated in Japan with a ceremony known as Higan, which means "the other shore" in Sanskrit and describes the state of bliss and enlightenment-known to Buddhists as Nirvana-that is attained after death. Because the equinoxes mark the times of year when day and night are of equal length, they represent a balance between light and darkness and are thus symbolic of the "Middle Way" or union between the spiritual and physical worlds that is so central to Buddhist belief.

For three days preceding and three days following the equinoxes in March and September, the Japanese pay their respects to their deceased ancestors -those who have already crossed the river that lies between earthly life and enlightenment and have thus reached "the other shore"-by visiting family gravesites and clearing them of dirt and debris. Then they offer fresh flowers, incense, and the sweet rice balls known as OHAGI to the ancestors, along with prayers for their souls. It is also common for people to visit their local temple for special memorial services during Higan and to ask their priest if he will read a sutra (a short verse or prayer) in honor of a deceased relative. Only the actual equinox day, which lies in the middle of the seven-day Higan observance, is considered a national holiday.

There is an old Japanese saying that neither the heat nor the cold last beyond Higan-a reference to the fact that the spring equinox marks the end of bitter winter weather and the autumn equinox marks the end of summer's heat and humidity. This twice-yearly celebration is therefore as much a seasonal observance as it is a Buddhist ceremony.



It is customary to bring flowers to decorate the family graves at Higan. One of the most popular is the higanbana or higan flower, a type of red cluster amaryllis so named because it blooms during the week of the autumn equinox and is therefore identified with the Higan observance.

Memorial Tablets

Toba or memorial tablets are typically displayed in the home or at the family gravesite during Higan. These are usually made of wood and contain the names of the deceased ancestors. They remind those who are still living to pay their respects to family members who have already reached "the other side."


The glutinous rice balls covered in sweet bean paste that are offered at the gravesites and served during the autumn Higan take their name from the flower known as hagi, which is a Japanese bush clover and one of the seven plants traditionally associated with autumn in Japan. Similar rice balls covered in sweetened soybean powder and known as botamochi are served at the spring equinox. Both have been associated with the observation of the equinoxes since the Edo period in Japan (1603-1867).


Bauer, Helen, and Sherwin Carlquist. Japanese Festivals. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1965. Bellenir, Karen. Religious Holidays and Calendars. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2004. MacDonald, Margaret R., ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992. Trawicky, Bernard, and Ruth W. Gregory. Anniversaries and Holidays. 5th ed. Chicago: American Library Assocation, 2000.


Japan National Tourist Organization www.jnto.go.jp/eng/indepth/history/experience/ab.html Higan


Week including March 20 or 21 and week including September 23 or 24
Higan is a week of Buddhist services observed in Japan at the spring and autumn equinoxes ( see Shunbun-no-Hi and Autumnal Equinox) when day and night are of equal length.
Both equinoxes have been national holidays since the Meiji Period (1868-1912). Before World War II, they were known as koreisai, "festivals of the Imperial ancestors." After the war, when the national holidays were renamed, they became simply spring equinox and autumn equinox.
Higan is the seven-day period surrounding the equinoxes. It means the "other shore," and refers to the spirits of the dead reaching Nirvana after crossing the river of existence. Thus Higan is a celebration of the spiritual move from the world of suffering to the world of enlightenment and is a time for remembering the dead, visiting, cleaning, and decorating their graves, and reciting sutras, Buddhist prayers. O-hagi, rice balls covered with sweet bean paste, and sushi are offered. It is traditional not to eat meat during this period. Emperor Heizei instituted the celebration in 806 c.e., when he ordered a week-long reading of a certain sutra for the occasion.
In Okinawa it is a home thanksgiving festival. Barley ( omugi ) or barley cakes with brown sugar are eaten with prayers for good fortune.
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 565
HolSymbols-2009, p. 357
JapanFest-1965, p. 190
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