Visiting the family grave. (Kyodo)
September 23 or 24 is Autumnal Equinox Day, a national holiday. It's a day not just to mark the changing of seasons but also to pay our respects to our deceased parents, grandparents, and other family members.
The months of September, October, November are usually considered the autumn months, but technically speaking, fall is the period between the autumnal equinox and winter solstice.
The autumnal equinox is the day when the sun crosses the equator from the Northern to the Southern Hemisphere. By the modern Gregorian calendar, this date usually falls on September 22 or 23. On this day, the sun rises exactly in the east and sets exactly in the west, and day and night become the same length. From this day on, days begin getting shorter than nights in the Northern Hemisphere.
The Japanese have traditionally called the period around the autumnal and vernal (springtime) equinoxes higan. There's a saying that goes, "both the heat and cold end with higan." Higan lasts for seven days - beginning three days prior to the equinox and ending three days after it. It occurs twice a year, once when the blustery winter temperatures give way to spring and again when the heat subsides and the cool, crisp air of autumn arrives.
Higan has Buddhist origins. It means the "other side of the river of death." This side of the river is the world where we live, and the other side is the realm where the souls of those who have passed away dwell. To pray for the repose of deceased ancestors, visits are made to the family grave.
Bon in August (July in some regions) is a time when the souls of our ancestors come to visit us. On higan, it's our turn to visit them. Visiting the family grave usually means cleaning the tombstone, offering flowers and food, burning incense sticks, and praying. A popular offering is ohagi, made with glutinous rice covered with adzuki-bean paste or soybean flour. As higan approaches, confectioners become very busy trying to meet the expected demand for ohagi.