The Celebration of Ohigan During Japan's Time of Disaster

by Susan Leem, associate producer

Katsuo Fujihara, 73, prays at the tomb of a dead family member at a cemetery in Kamaishi in Iwate prefecture. Still reeling 10 days after Japan’s deadliest natural disaster since 1923, the Japanese people marked shunbun no hi (vernal equinox day) on Sunday by visiting the tombs of their ancestors, cleaning them, and offering prayers and ohagi, sweet rice balls covered with red bean paste. (photo: Roslan Rahman/AFP/Getty Images)

Shinto, Buddhism, and even a combination of both are taking on new importance in mostly secular Japan amidst the ongoing tragedy. Unlike in the West, most Japanese don’t observe an exclusive division between two religions, writes John Nelson, chair of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of San Francisco:

“They’ll move back and forth between two or more religious traditions, seeing them as tools that are appropriate for certain situations. For things connected to life-affirming events, they’ll turn to Shinto-style rituals or understandings. But in connection to tragedy or suffering, it’s Buddhism.”

Yesterday marked the beginning of a special period in Buddhism called Ohigan where Japanese visit the graves of their families and pray to their ancestor spirits for help. The Japanese translation of Ohigan means “the other shore,” to distinguish the suffering felt in this world from the possibility of enlightenment.

Shinto sacred flame. (photo: Timothy Takemoto/Flickr)

During Ohigan in March 2005, Ryuei Michael McCormick describes the celebration in seasonal terms of transcendence. From his dharma talk at the San Jose Nichiren Buddhist Temple in March 2005:

“Ohigan is celebrated twice a year during the spring and autumn equinox, the time of year when the day and night are of equal length. The Ohigan is also a time of transition, from the short days of winter to the long days of summer and back again.

As a time of seasonal transition, it also represents the transitions of human life, from the sunny summer of life to dark winter of death. This is why the Ohigan is a time to remember those who have passed on, particularly our ancestors and loved ones. It is also a time to give thought to another kind of transition, from this shore of birth and death to the other shore of enlightenment, wherein birth and death is transcended. In fact, we recite the Odaimoku and the Lotus Sutra for the purpose of enabling those of us still living and those who are deceased for whom we dedicate merit to both arrive at the other shore of awakening.

For any kind of journey one needs to pack, or make provisions. Even an overnight trip requires that we bring a change of clothes and toiletries like shaving gear, deodorant, and so on. What kind of provisions, then, do we need to journey to the other shore of enlightenment? In this case, a spare towel or shaving kit will not suffice. We need something that is both less substantial and at the same time more real. According to Mahayana Buddhism, those of us who aspire to buddhahood will require what are called the six paramitas. Paramita is usually translated as “perfection” as in the “six perfections.” But it actually means “crossing over.” So these are the six characteristics of those who are able to cross over from this shore of suffering to the other shore of enlightenment, and who, furthermore, are able to help others to make that transition and cross as well.”

Tomorrow is the beginning of the Ohigan week in Japan due to the Spring equinox! It’s time to celebrate going to the Buddhist temples, where monks will be reading sutras and lectures. The ohigan takes 7 days of celebration, plus 3 days before and after.

Higan means “other shore” of the Sanzu River (while shigan means “this shore”). According to the Japanese buddhist thinking, we must leave “this shore”, the land of suffering (samsara), to the “other shore”, the Pure Land, to achieve the true happiness or the Enlightenment. With the practice of the Six Perfections (paramita; haramitsu or rokuharamitsu in Japanese) we can arrive in the “world without suffering”. Do not fail to visit your favourite Buddhist temple if you can.

Image: Kamoe Kannon temple (Hamamatsu, Shizuoka) celebrating the Ohigan.

Victor Hugo

Amanhã é o início da semana do Ohigan no Japão graças ao equinócio da Primavera! É o momento para celebrar indo para os templos budistas, onde monges lerão sutras e farão palestras. O Ohigan tem 7 dias de celebração, mais 3 dias antes e depois.

Higan significa a “outra margem” do Rio Sanzu (enquanto shigan significa “esta margem”). De acordo com o pensamento budista japonês, precisamos deixar “esta margem”, a terra do sofrimento (samsara), indo à “outra margem”, a Terra Pura, para assim alcançarmos a verdadeira felicidade ou a Iluminação. Com a prática das Seis Perfeições (paramita; haramitsu ou rokuharamitsu em japonês) nós podemos chegar ao “mundo sem sofrimento”. Não falhe em visitar o seu templo budista favorito se puder.

Imagem: Templo Kamoe Kannon (Hamamatsu, Shizuoka) celebrando o Ohigan.

Victor Hugo

お彼岸 / Ohigan



In Japan, yesterday marked the first day of spring Ohigan, the week centering the vernal equinox day. During Ohigan, “botamochi” named after botan or tree peony is eaten. A Japanese sweet made of pounded glutinous rice wrapped in red bean paste, soy bean flower, black sesame, or green laver. Ohigan is also celebrated for the autumn equinox day as well, when these (almost identical) sweets are called “ohagi” named after hagi or bush clover flower. It seems these days, they’re available as “ohagi” all year round in the shops.

  • me:*sitting at work thinking to self* so Koushirou visits his birth parents' graves during Ohigan
  • me:maybe not every time? maybe every time though and that's like twice a year (going by spring / autumn equinoxes)
  • me:And other times besides that, since he goes during the summer in 2001, too, according to the newest drama cd
  • me:what if he just visits in times of needing self reflection
  • me:...does he have conversations while hes there...