Autumnal Equinox Day (Shūbun no Hi; 秋分の日) is a public holiday in Japan dedicated to the equinox: the day the sun crosses over the equator from the Northern Hemisphere to the Southern. On this day, the sun rises exactly in the east and sets exactly in the west. The word "equinox" is actually derived from Latin and translates to “equal night”. On the equinox, the day and night are almost the exact same length.
In Japan, the fall equinox is an important date with associated customs dating back centuries. For the Japanese, the equinox is more than a day marking the change in seasons, but also a day to give thanks and pay respect to the deceased. In addition to celebrating the autumnal equinox, Japan also celebrates Vernal Equinox Day (Shunbun no Hi; 春分の日), which celebrates the spring equinox in late March.
The autumnal equinox has been a national holiday in Japan since the Meiji Period (1868 - 1912). The original holiday was called Shuki Koreisai and is believed to have roots stemming in both Buddhism and Shintoism. Following the conclusion of WWII, religion was separated completely from the Japanese government, and Shuki Koreisai became Shubun no Hi, a public holiday rather than a religious one.
In modern times, Shubun no Hi is celebrated in many different ways. As with most Japanese holidays, spending the day with loved ones is always encouraged. Oftentimes there are autumn festivals (matsuri; 祭) at local temples that offer festivities centered around welcoming the new season. One of the oldest traditions associated with the arrival of fall in Japan is tsukimi (月見) or otsukimi (お月見), which translates to "moon viewing". On the night of the Harvest Moon - the full moon that lands nearest to the equinox - a variety of Harvest Moon festivals take place all around the country, where attendees can enjoy music, performance arts, prayer, and food. Special Shubun no Hi snacks are also commonplace, such as botamochi, a ball of chewy rice in sweet red bean paste. Above all, one is meant to give thanks for the harvest and take time to appreciate the beauty of life during the time of the equinox holiday.
If you are visiting Japan during this time, make sure to be on the lookout for higanbana (彼岸花) the red spider lily. They are the unofficial flower of Shubun no Hi and bloom abundantly around the time of the equinox.