Ohigan literally means “the other shore” in Buddhist terminology. It is two periods of seven days with the middle day falling on the spring and autumn equinoxes (March 21 and Sept. 23, respectively), that have been observed as national holidays for more than 1,000 years in Japan. It is believed that this world and the spirit world intersect on Ohigan. You are closer to your ancestors and your mind and your ancestors’ are linked.
Records indicate Ohigan was widely observed as far back as the 9th century A.D. when the equinoxes became religious holidays, and the emperor called on Buddhist monks to read scriptures for these rites.
Today, many Japanese families visit tombs in temples or cemeteries to offer prayers for deceased family members and friends during the week of Spring Equinox Day. Sweet rice-gluten balls, or “bota-mochi,” are eaten during this period (the name comes from spring flower “botan,” or peony). There are also local Ohigan traditions such as the Matobi in Kitaakita City. The name literally means “10,000 bonfires” and refers to numerous bonfires, or “danbo,” that are placed around tombs and throughout towns on the night of the spring equinox to entertain ancestors’ souls.
Rituals When Visiting Family Graves
According to Buddhist custom, visitors should first visit the main building of the temple and greet the monk before cleaning the graves.
1. Clean up around the family graves by picking up fallen leaves or burnt incense.
2. Wipe off the grime on the gravestones.
3. Place offerings of flowers and food.
4. Offer incense and fill up water in the water basin.
5. Using the dipper, pour water from the pail over the gravestone.
6. Put your hands together and pray.
7. Take home offerings of food with you.
Source: Takahiro Takiguchi
Photography: Jeffrey Friedl