Autumnal Equinox Day (秋分の日): More Than Just a Change of Seasons

Far from being a new practice, the foundations of Autumnal Equinox Day were actually laid out centuries ago. But, many moons later, are the origins of this holiday still relevant today?

Posted by on September 23, 2017 – Life in Japan

Throughout the year, the balance between day and night is constantly changing. But as we progress through the seasons, twice a year we will encounter points where equilibrium is reached between the two; both day and night will be equal.

For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, the second ‘day-and-night-equilibrium’ of the year is known as the Autumn Equinox. It occurs between 22nd and 23rd September and indicates the astronomical arrival of autumn. In Japan, this event is marked by the public holiday ‘Autumnal Equinox Day’, also known in Japanese as Shubun no Hi (秋分の日).

When Exactly is Japan’s Autumn Equinox?

The Autumn Equinox occurs when the sun passes over the equator from the Northern Hemisphere to the Southern Hemisphere, which this year (2017) is 05:02 JST, 23rd September.

What is an ‘Equinox’

The word equinox comes from latin, meaning ‘equal night’. Although, contrary to popular belief, the lengths of day and night are not exactly equal.

The first equinox of the year occurs in March and is called the Vernal Equinox, which indicates the end of winter and the start of spring. Japan also celebrate the vernal equinox with a national holiday, Vernal Equinox Day.

How Did the Autumn Equinox Holiday Start?

Japan, along with other nations, has celebrated the Autumnal Equinox for centuries and it has been a national holiday since the Meiji period. Yet, the well established roots of this holiday – originally called Shuki Koreisai – are believed to stem from Shintoism and Buddhism.

In addition to the seasonal significance of the Autumnal Equinox, this holiday also paid tribute to the spirits of deceased relatives and Japanese Emperors. However, after WWII the government separated religion from the state through the post-war constitution and day was rebranded as a non-religious holiday.

Are there Traditional Ways to Celebrate?

Yes. Despite the rebranding of the holiday, the religious significance of the equinox still remains. Following both the autumnal and vernal equinoxes is the Buddhist holiday Ohigan, which literally means “the other shore”. This “other shore” is linked to enlightenment, and thus, this holiday is connected to six practices (paramitas) that are believed to lead to it: generosity, morality, perseverance, concentration, meditation and wisdom.

During O-higan, people will reconnect with their families to tend to the graves of ancestors and visit shrines and temples. People also celebrate the good weather and autumn harvest by enjoying outdoor activities and eating Shibun no Hi snacks such as botomachi – a ball of sweet rice in azuki paste.

How You Can Commemorate the Autumnal Equinox in/around Tokyo

  1. Perhaps the best way to spend this time is expressing gratitude to loved ones who have passed-over. As per the tradition, if you have ancestors in Japan you could tend to their gravestones. If not, you could ask friends if they would like any support in their families.
  2. Join your friends and search for higan-bana (彼岸花) – a type of flower that blooms around this time.
  3. Look for temple festivals near your home. Or visit one of the quieter temples such as Yuten-ji, Kotoku-ji or Zojo-ji.
    Observe the last of summer by taking a trip to a peaceful garden such as Higo-Hosokawa, San-keien (Yokohama) or Koishikawa Korakuen.
  4. Pay tribute to the six Mahayana Buddhist paramitas: give more to someone than you need to (generosity), start reading the book that’s been sat on your shelf for too long (wisdom), meditate for 10-minutes at one of the temples above (meditation), tell someone the truth about something bothering you or listen to someone who needs to talk (morality), spend time on a personal project (perseverance), or just turn off your phone for a while and give all of your attention to something or someone you love (concentration).
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