Higan-the Autumn Equinox

The day of the autumn equinox is a holiday here and I’ve always loved that because Autumn is my favorite season.

There is a saying in Japan:

“The summer heat or winter cold doesn’t last after Higan.”

Higan is said to be a turning point in the season and it is- as far as I have observed.

Higan or Ohigan is actually a Buddhist tradition observed on both the spring and autumn equinox. It is similar to Obon. It’s a time when families visit cemeteries to pay their respects to ancestors.

I’ve noticed that it is also a time when merchants turn the tide from summer to autumn wares.

I love it simply because it is the official start of Autumn.

The equinox, when summer officially hands over the keys and bids a final farewell. The last threads of summer were washed silently away in the mist. Not even a leaf stirred. There was no sound except for the ever present caw of the giant crows-karasu.

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Even the scarecrows stood reticent guard over the elementary school rice field as  giant black karasu sat perched above on the electric lines…. eyeing up the persimmon trees that were now dotted with orange fruit.

As I walk about town I see that several of the persimmon trees have already been ravaged by the birds. During this time of the year it’s best to avoid walking under a persimmon tree. There are several that grow up over the walls above the sidewalk. Smashed fruit and bird-droppings smear the old concrete walks beneath them.

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It seems that Higanbana have sprung up everywhere over the past few days. A sure sign that autumn has truly arrived. In ditches, lining the edges of rice fields and poking up in clumps in hedgerows and road-sides. Their spindly red blossoms add bright autumn color to our landscape.

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This is also the time when moon viewing is at its best.

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There is actually a moon-viewing festival here. Everywhere actually. It is a Japanese traditional festival called Otsukimi that usually takes place on the 15th day of the 8th month of the traditional Japanese calendar which is different from our modern calendar.

Otsukimi dates back to around the year 710 and was mainly celebrated by aristocrats who held moon viewing parties and read poetry, drank sake and generally had a great time out in the cool autumn evening.

Observing Otsukimi is wonderful. Traditionally round white mochi (rice dumplings) are eaten during this time and it is common to see decorations of the full moon hanging in the night sky while rabbits below pound rice into mochi. Americans talk about the “man in the moon” but Japanese say there are rabbits on the moon. I had no idea until some friends in ladies group explained the meaning of the rabbit/moon motifs.

first day of Autumn
my heart is pounding wild
Ah! The full moon

Matsuo Basho

The big cemetery across the valley reminds me that Higan is here. A week before the spring and autumn equinox the huge Kanji character “dai” is illuminated on the mountainside.

I can see it clearly from my back garden.

The “dai” blazes across the valley as the harvest moon illuminates the tops of now fading azalea leaves. A slight cool breeze gently stirs the faded bamboo sunshade as crickets chirrup from one side of the garden to the other. Sitting quietly in the dark I smell the earth and the tangy aroma of autumn fruit.

It is good to be alive but it is good to be reminded that everything changes.

3 thoughts on “Higan-the Autumn Equinox

  1. So now you get to eat all those delicious sweets colored in autumn colors. Not to mention the fallen leaves in the mountains during those hikes you take. Happy to know you appreciate this change in seasons. Will you and N be taking any autumn trips to see the special places? Sipping tea, eating sweets by a riverside with colorful leaves as your companions. Lucky you.

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  2. When I was a young girl my friends and I created our own moon viewing festival. This story reminded me of that and as always, you’re writing often make me feel as if I’ve come home. Thank you!

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