Today the 21th of March is Shunbun no Hi in Japan, spring equinox day in English which is the beginning of the spring. In theory apart from today, the winter finishes and the day time is getting longer.
Shunbun no Hi is one of Nijuushi Sekki and in 1948 this day was decided as a bank holiday in Japan. Supposedly this is the day of "praise the nature and cherish animals".
In buddhism during this term the sun settles in due west where corresponding to the east gate of Gokuraku (heaven in Japanese). Therefore praying the sunset is same as praying towards the entrance of Gokuraku. In this sense, the 21st of March is the closest day to the heaven.
Before and after Shunbun no Hi, about a week period is called Higan means other side of the shore. If I say Nirvana, maybe easy to enderstand but I will explain about in another occasion. During Higan most of Japanese people visit cemetery to pray for the souls of the dead.
The most common food to eat for Shunbun no Hi is Botamochi. This is also called Ohagi which is something like sweet mashed rice ball wrapped with sweet azuki bean paste. Sorry doesn't sound so tasty… But look at the photo, now yes, look tasty.
Actually there are two Higan in a year, in spring and in autumn. Somehow this sweet changes the name, Botamochi in spring and Ohagi in autumn. Don't get confused, they are exactly the same looking and taste. It's believed that the red of azuki beans protect us from bad spirits.
After Botamochi, this Kusamochi is eaten commonly. This green colour is Yomogi leaf (mugwort in English) added in mochi paste. Tastes quite freshy. There is azuki bean paste inside. Caution, don't eat the leaf outside unless you are goat…
Then Gomoku Chirashi zushi. Gomoku means mixed more than five ingredients. Chirashi is a tpe of sushi.
People also eat Inari zushi. People make or buy these food not only to eat but also to take to the cemetery for their loved ones.
Shunbun no Hi this year must be a very difficult day for all Japanese people. Probably they are not in the mood of enjoying warm spring days.
In some regions in Japan they have traditional functions.
For example in Motosu City in Gifu prefecture, Komekashi festival (米かし祭り) is held in Kasuga Shrine.
The day before Shunbun no Hi, men with Fundoshi (Japanese traditional underware/swimsuit) run to the mouth of the flume, go into the frozen river, wash the rice and take some water from the river then all come back to the Shrine.
This function is for to appreciate the people who built the flume and to pray for a rich harvest in autumn. I sympathise with those guys in this cold and promise to eat everything I'm served.
More about Higan