Today, the 23rd of September is a National Holiday in Japan. It’s Autumnal Equinox Day. On the equinox day, as you may know already, the length of daytime and night are approximately equal. Of course, an equinox occurs twice a year, in September and in March. In Japan, the seven days, from three days before the equinox day till three days after, are called “O-Higan”, which is one of the Buddhist customs carried out even now.
What do the Japanese do during O-Higan?
There must be special Buddhist ceremonies and rituals according to sects, but we would like to list up below what we normally do, even those who are not devout Buddhists:
- Visit ancestors’ graves
- Eat O-Hagi
That’s all. It’s quite simple, isn’t it? However, we guess those who know too much about Japanese culture may have a doubt;
“Isn’t there another occasion similar to O-Higan in summer?”
Yes. You may be reminded of O-Bon which occurs on around the 15th of July or the 15th of August. O-Bon is another Buddhist custom to dedicate for the people who passed away and to express our respect and gratitude toward them. Then, what is the difference between O-Higan and O-Bon?
The difference between O-Higan and O-Bon
The biggest difference is the direction of our movement; ‘they come toward us,’ or ‘we go toward them.’ (Note: I would like to make sure, even though it may not be necessary, that this movement is only the emotional matter and it does not include the actual movement of the body.)
In Buddhism, people who passed away are believed to be living in the “Pure Land of Bliss” where Amitābha, the Buddha of Infinite Light, governs. It is believed to be located in far west. On the equinox day the sun rises from the direction of due east and it sets in due west. So, the basic theory of O-Higan is to think of the people who passed away observing the sun setting in the due west, the direction where the “Pure Land of Bliss” is located. In fact, the meaning of “Higan” is “Pure Land of Bliss”. (‘O’ is a prefix added to nouns to raise the level of politeness or respect.) Therefore, In O-Higan, ‘we go toward them.’
On the other hand, O-Bon is the time when the people who passed away come back to this world. For O-bon, we create a horse with a cucumber and a cow with an eggplant for ancestors to ride for their way.
A horse is for coming back to this world, while a cow is for going back to that world. A horse runs faster than a cow. This is to express a wish to have the ancestors at our home as early and to stay with us as long as possible.
There is also a bonfire custom, which is to make a small fire in front of the entrance. This is to let ancestors know that we are ready for receiving them. As a matter of fact, this fire is called ‘a welcoming fire’. At the end of the O-Bon period, we make a bonfire again, ‘a farewell fire’, at the same place to let them know the time for leaving.
During O-Bon, we don’t visit the graves because the ancestors are staying at our home. Therefore, in O-Bon, ‘they come toward us.’
What does the word ‘O-Bon’ mean?
‘Bon’ is a tray normally made of wood which we put dishes on. Then, why the word ‘tray’ has been used for this Buddhist ceremony? There are mainly two theories. One is for a tray which is used to put offerings on. The other one is, which is very interesting, the abbreviation for ‘Urabon-e’ whose origin is the Sanskrit word ‘Ullambana’ which means ‘hanging upside down’. Why on earth?? It is based upon an episode of Gautama BuddhaW.
One of Gautama’s disciples asked him for an advice on how to save his mother who was receiving a punishment of ‘hanging upside down’ in the Realm of the Hungry Dead. He said he should call a priest to his house and make a prayer for her with offerings after the estival Buddhist training. The disciple followed his advice and made a prayer with a priest in his house on the 15th of July, and he succeeded to save her from the great suffering and to let her go to the “Pure Land of Bliss” in the far west.
What is O-Hagi?
In the explanation of what to do during O-Higan, we wrote about eating O-Hagi. It is a sweet made with steamed rice and Anko (read bean paste). The concept of O-Hagi is completely opposite from that of ManjūW, and the Anko covers the rice part.
There is another sweet which is very similar to O-Hagi. That is Botamochi. There are many theories about the difference between O-Hagi and Botamochi and we sorted them out as below:
- O-Hagi and Botamochi are identical. The difference is only their names. O-Hagi is for the ones eaten in autumn when flowers of Hagi (bush clovers, Lespedeza) are in bloom. While Botamochi is for the ones eaten in spring which is the season of Botan (tree peonies, Paeonia suffruticosa) are in bloom. People reflect these sweets to the flowers in season.
- In Tokyo, we mean Edo, both have been called as O-Hagi regardless of the season.
- For Botamochi glutinous rice (or sticky rice) is used, while for O-Hagi normal rice is used.
- For Botamochi Anko is used for covering, while for O-Hagi Kinako (or roasted soybean flour) is used.
- Botamochi is larger than O-Hagi. ‘Bota‘ of Botamochi is derived from the adjective ‘botabota-shita’, which means ‘pludgy’.
- O-Hagi was the word used only by women.
- For Botamochi Koshi-an, strained read bean paste, is used, while for O-Hagi whole bean paste is used.
- For Botamochi the rice is fully pounded, while for O-hagi the rice remains granular.
There may exist more theories than eight that we found and the situation changes place to place. So it would be interesting if you ask the locals what to call this sweet in every place you visit in Japan!
We learned, moreover, the names of this sweet in other seasons when no Hagi or Botan are in bloom. In summer, it is called ‘a night boat’. What is in common between ‘a night boat’ and O-Hagi? A night boat, we are not aware of it when it arrives at a dock because it is dark. The Japanese word for ‘arrive’ is ‘Tsuku’, while the word for ‘pounding’ is also ‘Tsuku’. People do not pound rice when making O-hagi or Botamochi (excluding the area where the theory No.8 is applied.) Normally we notice that someone is making a Mochi kind of sweets with the sound of pounding rice. However, it is not noticeable when someone is making O-Hagi because it is made with unpounded rice. Here is a pun that the Japanese have loved for centuries.
On the other hand, in winter, it is called ‘a northern window’. Here comes again a pun. The noun form of the verb ‘pounding’ is ‘Tsuki’, whose sound is the same to the word meaning ‘the moon‘. What is in common between a sweet made with unpounded rice and a northern window? You cannot see the moon from a northern window. There is No ‘Tsuki’!
If you want to know more about Botamochi, please refer to our past article, “Keichitsu, Makkou“.
In Kamakura there is a small temple called Botamochi-dera, whose name is based on an episode of a Buddhist monk, Nichiren (1222-1282) who started Nichiren sect. He was very active propagating his teachings in Kamakura, where there was a Kamakura government (1185-1333). As he gained a great many followers including samurai and as he submitted a political treatise to the Kamakura government, he was regarded as a danger, he was arrested several times and finally he received the capital sentence. While he was brought for the execution, an old nun gave him some Botamochi with sesame. After that, he was miraculously exempted from the death penalty. Miraculously, because it is said that the sword was broken into two by a ray of strong light at the very moment when the executor raised the sword over his head. From this, a story of Botamochi which saved the life of Nichiren was made up.
Later, in 1606 this temple was established on behalf of this old nun. On the 12th of September, a festival of Botamochi is held every year and Botamochi covered with sesame are offered to Nichiren.
If you want to know more about Nichiren, please refer to our previous article, “Tai no Ura – Meet The Lucky Fish!”.
Address : 1-12-11 Omachi, Kamakura-shi, Kangagawa Pref. Entrance Fee : Free Parking : There is no parking inside the temple but there are several parking lots nearby.
(*Important Note: There are many different legends, traditions, and customs depending on area and on sect and school of Buddhism, and we are not intended to tell that only what we wrote in the article is true.)