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The Autumn Equinox Festival in Japan

Is that autumn in the air, already? I don’t know about you, but I’m more than ready for it! 

Today, we’re going to explore 彼岸の中日 (ひがんのちゅうにち), or “the equinoctial day,” on which the Japanese acknowledge the arrival of autumn. On the Autumn Equinox, Japanese people express appreciation for their ancestors and indulge in a few seasonal celebrations as well. 

Let’s take a closer look!

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1. What is the Autumnal Equinox?

the Autumnal Equinox

Autumnal Equinox Day, or 秋分の日 (しゅうぶんのひ), normally falls on September 22 or 23. This is the day on which summer officially becomes autumn; in addition, the sun will rise in the true east and then set in the true west. 

The Autumn Equinox celebration in Japan began as a holiday called 皇霊祭 (Kōreisai), literally meaning “a royal court event held in the autumn.” This holiday began in 1878, and on this day, people would worship and pay respects to the deceased emperors and other members of the royal family. Over time, the Japanese began to celebrate the holiday in a less-religious manner, instead honoring the dead in general and praying for a successful harvest.

Today, the Autumn Equinox celebration maintains its non-religious status, and the Japanese honor their ancestors while celebrating the coming season.

2. Autumn Equinox Rituals and Celebrations

an offering left at a grave

墓参り (はかまいり), or “visiting a grave,” is the most important tradition for Autumnal Equinox Day. Japanese people, over the course of 彼岸 (ひがん), or the “equinoctial week,” pay their respects to deceased ancestors by cleaning the gravesite and giving offerings of food and flowers. Many people also burn an “incense stick,” or 線香 (せんこう), to show respect. 

There are two main reasons for the popularity of this tradition: 

1) It resembles the traditions of the older Kōreisai holiday we mentioned earlier. 

2) The Japanese believe that the deceased go to another world in the west, the direction that the sun sets for the Autumnal Equinox. 

The Autumnal Equinox is also a time of appreciation for the coming season. In fact, there’s a saying in Japan: “No heat or cold lasts over the Equinox.” This refers to the fact that the weather during autumn tends to be more mild and tolerable than the weather at any other point in the year—certainly a reason to celebrate after a long summer, and before the coming winter! 

3. Autumnal Equinox Food

a tray of Buddhist cuisine

The Autumn Equinox Festival in Japan is the perfect time to sample some fall-time Japanese treats. Many people offer a traditional Japanese sweet called おはぎ, or “ohagi,” to their ancestors and enjoy some themselves. “Ohagi” comes from the word 萩 (hagi), meaning “Japanese clover,” which blooms around the time of the Autumnal Equinox. This dessert consists of cooked rice grains that have been crushed and covered in bean paste. 

One will also find a lot of 精進料理 (しょうじんりょうり), or “Buddhist cuisine,” available during this time. 

4. Essential Japanese Vocabulary for the Autumnal Equinox

a white myrtle blossom

Let’s review some of the Japanese vocabulary from this article! 

  • 花 (はな) — “flower”
  • 先祖 (せんぞ) — “ancestor”
  • 精進料理 (しょうじんりょうり) — “Buddhist cuisine”
  • 秋分の日 (しゅうぶんのひ) — “Autumnal Equinox Day”
  • おはぎ (おはぎ) — “ohagi”
  • 線香 (せんこう) — “incense stick”
  • 墓参り (はかまいり) — “visiting a grave”
  • 彼岸明け (ひがんあけ) — “the last day of the equinoctial week”
  • 彼岸の入り (ひがんのいり) — “the first day of the equinoctial week”
  • 彼岸の中日 (ひがんのちゅうにち) — “the equinoctial day”
  • 供え物 (そなえもの) — “offering”
  • 彼岸 (ひがん) — “equinoctial week”
  • 秋分点 (しゅうぶんてん) — “autumn equinox”

Remember that you can find each of these words, along with their pronunciation, on our Japanese Autumn Equinox vocabulary list

Final Thoughts

Due to the prominence of filial piety in Japan, one can see how important the Autumnal Equinox traditions are. But this holiday is just one drop in the ocean of Japanese culture! 

For more great content about Japanese culture and holidays, check out the following articles on JapanesePod101.com:

What are your favorite things about autumn? Do you have any special autumn celebrations in your country? Let us know in the comments.

Happy Autumn Equinox from the JapanesePod101.com family!

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