Visiting the family grave. (Kyodo)
March 20 or 21 is Shunbun no Hi, or Vernal Equinox Day, a day when the sun crosses the equator making night and day equal in length. It's a national holiday in Japan, a day to commune with nature and to show our affection for all living things.
The seven-day period starting three days before Vernal Equinox Day and ending three days after is called higan. Higan, which also occurs around Autumnal Equinox Day, is - along with New Year's and the bon festival in the summer - a time when we pay our respects to ancestors. Visits are made to the family grave, cleaning it and offering flowers and incense to console ancestral spirits.
Following Vernal Equinox Day, days gradually get longer and nights shorter. There's an old saying that the chill of winter finally disappears after Shunbun no Hi, and temperatures do get higher from around this time. Cherry blossoms - the most popular symbol of spring in Japan - begin to bloom, first in the south and then in the colder parts of the country in the north.