For thousands of years, and across the globe, humankind has venerated the sun. In fact, there is evidence that human beings have celebrated the four cardinal points of the year since the Stone Age. These four points — and the days on which they fall — mark the change from one season to the next. These events are comprised of two solstices, which mark the shortest and longest days of the year, and two equinoxes, on which there are equal hours of light and darkness. Although in much of the modern world the significance of these days has been disregarded, there are some cultures whose people still understand and remember the meaning of these days, and who continue to honor their traditions — even if the holidays have been transmuted over time.
In Japan, the March equinox is now known as Shunbun no Hi, or Vernal Equinox Day. It marks an end to winter and the arrival of spring. It is also the official beginning of the cherry blossom season, as the trees begin to bloom in the south, and then, shortly after, in the colder parts of the country further to the north.
In Shinto, the day was known as Shunki Koreisai, and was seen as a time to venerate ancestors, and to pay respects to past members of the imperial family. In 1948, as part of post-war reforms that converted religious holidays to secular holidays for the sake of separating religion from state affairs, the day was changed to its present form. Now, it is intended to celebrate love of nature and living things. Though it is not a part of the Happy Monday System, it is a bank holiday, and most people will have the day off from work. But even in modern Japan, many people still maintain the older traditions. Family reunions are a common way to celebrate, as are ritual visitations to the graves of loved ones. On these visits, the graves are swept clean, the stones are washed, and offerings of food, sake, incense, and freshly-cut flowers are left. Many people in Japan also see the day as a time to symbolically renew and enrich their lives by cleaning their homes, taking up a new hobby, or beginning or finishing school. And among farmers and agriculturists, Shunbun no Hi is a special day when prayers are said for good luck, good fortune, the health of the land, and the health of the crops throughout the coming seasons of the year.
Shunbun no Hi falls in the middle of the seven-day celebration of Haru no Higan, or Spring Higan. Higan means “other shore,” sometimes thought of as the “enlightenment shore.” In Buddhism, this refers to the belief that there is a river that divides this life from the next. It is said that when night and day are equal, the Buddha appears on earth to guide stray souls and help them make the crossing. The celebration of Higan, and the associated change of seasons, is so ingrained in Japanese society that it is memorialized in a popular proverb: atsusa samusa mo Higan ma de — “heat and cold last until Higan.” After Shunbun no Hi, the chill of the winter finally disappears.
Although the precise time of the 2019 March equinox is 9:58 PM UT, 20th March, Shunbun no Hi will be celebrated in Japan on 21 March this year.
From your friends at Chibi Dragon, Happy Shunbun no Hi! Enjoy the warmer weather, the growing light, and the cherry blossoms.