In the traditional Tokyo neighborhood of Yanaka, the smell of incense and sounds of people scrubbing gravestones fills the air every year on September 23. It’s higan, the time of the equinox, and Japanese people go to graveyards all over the country for ohaka mairi (grave visits) to pay their respects to their ancestors.
It’s said that the Higan observance comes from a Buddhist belief that when the night and day are equally divided, Buddha appears on earth for a week to save stray souls and lead them to Nirvana, so there are observances both in spring (shunbun) and autumn (shubun).

A woman on her way to pay her respects at a grave.

This woman is carrying a sotoba, a wooden stick which has the deceased person’s kaimyo written on it. A kaimyo is a special name that is given to the person after he or she dies.

A typical grave.