Higan is a week centering around the Equinox day. There are two Equinox days in a year, vernal and autumnal, so we have 2 Higan weeks in a year, Haru-Higan（vernal higan) and Aki-Higan（autumnal higan).
Each Equinox day is designated as a National Holiday. During this period Buddhist temples hold special memorial services and we have the custom of visiting our ancestors’ graves.
Haru-Higan（vernal higan) is a week usually around March 21st.
Aki-Higan（autumnal higan) is a week usually around September 23rd.
Higan is a week easy for the dead to cross the river.
On the Equinox day, the day and night are almost equally long. In Buddhism, it is believed that it becomes easier for the spirits of the dead to cross the river from the other world to this world around Equinox day.
How and why? Higan literally means “the other shore of the river”, expressing the state of enlightenment in Buddhism. This peaceful world for the dead(Higan) is believed to be far in the west, while our world(Shigan) is in the east. As the sun rises from the west and sets to the east, the Equinox makes it easier to connect two worlds, therefore we can meet each other during this period.
It is said that those who hold the memorial services for the ancestors during higan period would be able to go to the Pure Land, the land of Perfect Bliss in Buddhism.
What do people do during Higan week?
People clean the graves and offer seasonal flowers, incense sticks, and food such as special sticky rice cake covered with sweetened red beans. This special rice cake is called ohagi or bota-mochi, the most common food offered during higan. Actually, they are basically same, but we call them differently. It is just caused by the season.
In vernal higan we call it bota-mochi, naming after the seasonal flower for spring, Botan or tree peony. Mochi means rice cake.
In autumnal higan we call it ohagi, naming after the autumnal flower of Hagi, the Japanese bush clover.
Some people handmade them. We can also get them at Japanese confectionary shops throughout the year. As they are sold in both names, today even some Japanese people don’t get why they have different names for one item.