Autumn has arrived in Japan and like in every year around this time, the mystical, other-worldly Higanbana flowers (Red Spider Lily) are in bloom. And like in every year, it’s time for people to visit the family cemetery to clean it and pay respect to their ancestors.
Higanbana flowers are symbols of the solemn tradition of Higan, a seven-day period centered around September 22, the Autumn Equinox. Night and day are equal, and Japanese believe that the world of the living and world of departed are at their closest around this time.
For me, Higanbana flowers (especially the red ones) bring back my childhood memories. When I was a child, they grew wild mostly in cemeteries, but also around rice paddies and along common passages. These days, they are also planted in beautiful parks and gardens.
Back then, I was scared of touching them. Elders used to warn children not to touch them lest they get sick. But children are curious, and once in a while we would pick them by breaking their stems… Oh, my! They smelled so pungent. I thought they smelled like something dead.
Japanese believe that the world of the living and the world of the departed are separated by the mythical Sanzu river. The Kanji for Higan (彼岸）means the “other shore”.
Higan is not the world of the “dead”. Rather, it is where our departed ancestors “live” albeit in a different form. We, mortals, live in Shigan (此岸), the “near shore”.
The word Higanbana (彼岸花) means the “flower from the other shore”. Higanbana flowers are believed to be temporary embodiments of our ancestors who come for a brief visit when our two worlds are at their closest during the autumn equinox (we also observe a seven-day Higan period during the spring equinox).
I’m not scared of Higanbana flowers anymore. Now, I respect them and adore their beauty.
I hope one day, if I come back as one, others feel the same.
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