The term "higan" refers to enlightenment or escape from earthly desires, and refers to the 'other side' as opposed to the term 'shigan' (this side) which means this world filled with earthly desires and doubt.
The term 'higan-e' refers to one of the Zassetsu (collective term of the specific days which show the change of seasons other than the twenty-four divisions of the old calendar), and the seven days around Spring Equinox Day or those around Autumnal Equinox Day. It also refers to a Buddhist service for the dead which is held during this period.
According to the calendar, the first day is called 'entering higan,' and the last day is called 'finishing higan,' and in some regions the last day is called 'hashirikuchi.'
It is said that on the middle day people give thanks to their ancestors and on the other six days people practice one each of the six types of virtue a day, called Rokuharamitsu, which are necessary for reaching enlightenment.
The Buddhist memorial service of higan-e is unique to Japan, and the Buddhist service for the dead in higan originates from Pure Land Buddhism.
It is thought that the Pure Land of Amitabha (the pure land ruled by Amida Nyorai or Amitabha Tathagata) exists off in the distance in the west (it is also called the Western Pure Land).
As the sun rises directly in the East and sets directly in the West around the Equinox, people worshipped the sun setting in the west and imagined a faraway Pure Land of Amitabha; and this was the precursor to higan.
It was originally based on the idea of believing in an afterlife, the idea of which was transmitted through the Silk Road. It seems to be understood as a wish for rebirth in the Pure Land by imaging the Pure Land of Amitabha.
Although Higan was begun with the intent to spread Buddhism throughout the country by Imperial order, it was gradually became for the repose of ancestors since people regardless of age are interested in the other world.
It is also said that the word 'higan' of higan-e originates from another word 'higan' with different characters (belief in the sun). The sun and ancestor worship have been common elements of faith since ancient times, not only in Japan. There is another theory that the Buddhist term "higan" merged together with the idea of sun and ancestor worship (according to Shigeru GORAI) at a later stage.
In 806 the first higan-e was held in Japan. According to the description in the "Nihonkoki" (Later Chronicles of Japan), the priests in provincial monasteries in various districts were ordered to 'chant the Kongo Hannya-kyo Sutra for seven days' for Emperor Sudo (Imperial Prince Sawara).
The offerings for higan in Japan include rice and sweet bean paste cake called 'botamochi' or 'ohagi' which is a ball of lightly crushed steamed rice, thickly coated with sweet bean paste less than 10 centimeters in diameter. Apparently these names originated from the peony tree (in spring) and bush clover (in autumn) which bloom around the week of the Spring and Autumn equinox respectively.
Soybean flour and sesame
On September 12, 1271, Nichiren was brought to the execution ground at Tatsunokuchi in Kamakura. It is said that a nun in the audience who heard the news quickly made a rice cake coated with soybean flour and sesame for the last meal of Nichiren and served him because she had no time to make sweetened red bean paste. Nichiren escaped danger and was exiled to Sado island. In memory of this event, the Nichiren sect offers the botamochi coated with sesame which is called 'the rice ball of danger' on September 12 of the old lunar date.
It is also called such as 'rice cake to deter bad luck' or 'rice cake for life.'