Ohigan is a weeklong Japanese holiday for self-reflection and honoring one’s ancestors. Also called Higan-e or Higan, it is celebrated in Japan at both the spring and autumnal equinoxes, when the days and nights are of equal length. This time of seasonal transition is when the distance between the world of the living and the world of the dead is thought to be shortest. Ohigan translates as “crossing over to the other shore,” meaning nirvana, the Pure Land, or the realm of deceased loved ones.
The pleasant weather at Ohigan is said to evoke celestial life of the Pure Land and to be conducive to Buddhist practice. Chanting the Lotus Sutra or Odaimoku (“Nam-myoho-renge-kyo”) to confer merit on the ancestors (and accrue some for oneself) is a common practice during Ohigan. It is also considered particularly beneficial to practice the six perfections, or paramitas (Skt.). Generally translated as “supreme,” paramita is often understood as “gone beyond”—beyond the suffering of samsara—and the six paramitas are seen as the qualities of an enlightened being: generosity (dana), morality (sila), patience (ksanti), energy (virya), meditation (dhyana/samadhi), and wisdom (prajna).
Ohigan, like Obon, is a time to visit the resting places of ancestors to ensure that they are clean and well tended and to make offerings. Cremation predominates in Japan, and burial sites tend to be compact, especially in densely populated areas. Indoor niches for the ashes have become common in Tokyo, where open space for graves is scarce and prohibitively expensive.
Decorating graves with flowers is a long-held tradition during Ohigan and may hark back to its agricultural roots, when cultivating ancestors’ favor was viewed as a way to assure a good harvest. The red spider lily, or higanbana (“flower of Ohigan”), is associated with Fall Ohigan. Higanbana are also known as ghost flowers or spirit flowers because they are commonly found near graveyards.
It is also traditional to eat certain foods during Ohigan—ohagi in the fall and botamochi in the spring. Both are made of sticky rice wrapped in sweetened red bean paste.
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