Vernal Equinox Day (春分の日): The Start of Spring

Japan’s national holiday, Vernal Equinox Day (Shunbun no Hi, 春分の日), commemorates the sun passing over the equator from the Northern Hemisphere to the Southern Hemisphere. The exact time and date of the sun shifting over the equator varies year-to-year, but this year (2018), the vernal equinox will be at 01:15 JST on Wednesday 21st March, and Vernal Equinox Day (also known as Spring Equinox Day) will also be held on this day.
Many of us are more concerned with the fact that Vernal Equinox Day unofficially indicates the end of the cold dry winter, and the start of sakura (桜, cherry blossom) season – a beautiful time to be in Japan! But what else is Shunbun no Hi about, and why is it celebrated to begin with?

What is an “Equinox”?

The term “equinox” means “equal night” in Latin, and there are two points in every year that it is observed, the second one being the autumn equinox. In Japan, the autumn equinox is also marked with a public holiday, “Autumnal Equinox Day”, or 秋分の日 (Shubun no Hi) in Japanese.
If we put the term “equinox” into context though, we discover that both the spring equinox, and the autumn equinox, are not true to their supposed meaning. Due to light refraction and the geometric centre of the sun, the lengths of day and night are not completely equal. Yet, being close enough, it’s unlikely the names of these events will change any time soon!

How Did the Vernal Equinox Holiday Start?

The first observance of Vernal Equinox Day, also known as Spring Equinox Day, was in 1948, yet, as with many other Japanese holidays, its origins go back much further than that. Prior to WWII, this day was known as Shunki kōreisai, which was connected to Shintoism. Due to the separation of religion from the state, via Japan’s post-war constitution, this holiday had to be repackaged into the non-religious holiday of today.

Are there Traditional Ways to Celebrate?

Shunbun no Hi is actually part of a seven-day celebratory period known as “Haru no Higan” (春の彼岸), of which the term “higan” means “another world”. As you may have guessed, Haru no Higan is a time to pay tributes to the spirits, or more specifically, the spirts of loved ones. There are two higan seasons in Japan, and they both correspond to the dates of the equinoxes. As such, the celebratory practices during the higan periods are very similar. During these times, trips to ancestral family graves are common, as is a popular food known as “bota mochi” (or “ohagi” during the autumn higan). Bota mochi is a chewy ball of sweet rice, frequently used as an offering at shrines, temples and graves across Japan.

How To Commemorate the Vernal Equinox in/around Tokyo

  • 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.
  • Grab the biru or the ume-shu (and food of course) and head down to your local park for a hanami (flower viewing) party. Three of the most popular locations in Tokyo are Shinjuku Gyoen, Chidorigafuchi Moat and Ueno Park. My personal favourite is a much less conspicuous park in Yokohama called Kuraki Koen.

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