Maybe you are already familiar with obon, a Japanese holiday during which people pay their respects to their family’s graves. But did you know that they also visit graves on two other days of the year? That celebration is called ohigan.
Ohigan Is a Period for Remembrance
Ohigan is celebrated twice a year on the “vernal equinox day” and the “autumnal equinox day,” and three days before and after them. During the equinox, days and nights are of equal length, and this period is thought to be when the world of the living and the world of the dead become close. This changing of the season becomes a time for personal reflection and for remembering and honoring the dead.
Just like during obon, people usually clean up the gravesites, offer flowers, burn incense, pray, and may recite sutras too. It is customary to give Japanese cakes as offerings: botamochi in spring and ohagi in autumn. Both are wrapped in anko [sweet red bean paste], because red is thought to ward off evil spirits.
The autumnal equinox period happens during “Silver Week,” a period of holidays a bit shorter than “Golden Week,” and many people use that period to travel and visit family members.
The Deeper Meaning of Ohigan
Ohigan is said to have been created by semi-legendary Prince Shotoku from the Asuka period (538–710). The prince is famous for promoting Buddhism in Japan, and ohigan is a Buddhist celebration. Nowadays, it is celebrated by Japanese Buddhist sects all around the world.
The word ohigan [お彼岸] literally means “the other shore.” One of its meanings is the other shore reached after death, hence the celebration of deceased ancestors. However, the word’s second meaning is nirvana [enlightenment] which, in Buddhist teachings, is compared to reaching a far shore.
It reminds Buddhist practitioners that they can reach nirvana in this current life. Practitioners chant sutra and practice the six paramitas [Buddhist virtues] during ohigan.
The Ohigan Flower
When hearing the word “ohigan,” Japanese people immediately think of the mysterious-looking red spider lilies, called “higanbana” (the flower of higan) in Japanese. The flowering time of this flower is short, but it coincidentally blooms during the autumn ohigan period.
The flowers are also called the “flowers of the dead” or “ghost flowers,” because they bloom a lot around graveyards. They act as reminders of death and the afterlife. By the way, it has poison in its roots, so make sure to never bring one home!