An Ode to Setsubun
A big part of what makes life in Tokyo so vibrant and exciting is the four distinct seasons. Though Japan isn’t unique in this regard (despite what some may think!), each of the country’s four seasons does have plenty of highly unique things to offer, writes Dakota.
Spring, the period characterized by warmer weather, flower blooms, and of course, the famous plum and cherry blossom trees, kicks off on February 3rd with Setsubun, a celebration to bring in the new season.
Before Japan switched from the Chinese zodiac to the Gregorian calendar in 1873, Setsubun was thought of not only as ushering in the start of spring, but of the New Year itself. It was effectively New Year’s Eve, so many Setsubun traditions are associated with bringing good luck for the coming year, and banishing bad luck away.
The practice of mamemaki, for example, is meant to chase bad spirits away. “Mamemaki” literally means “bean scattering”, and it’s a central part of Setsubun. At temples and in homes across the country, people throw roasted soybeans while shouting, “Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!” (“Devils out, fortune in”), sometimes at a person in a mask (in a home, usually the father) playing the part of an oni, an evil spirit that brings bad luck and ill health. The beans are supposed to scare them away, and help usher in good fortune instead. Afterwards, people eat the number of beans that corresponds to their age, or the age they’ll turn in the coming year, which is thought to bring good luck.
Historically, the New Year period was thought to be a time when the spirit world was closer to the human world, which is why it was important to ensure the bad spirits stayed away. In the past, people would sometimes even bring their garden tools inside the house so that spirits couldn’t harm them when they passed through.
Today, Setsubun festivities vary from quieter, family rituals held in homes, to widely attended, televised events at major shrines, featuring singing, dancing, games or celebrities like sumo wrestlers, who sometimes play the part of the bean-throwers. Bigger events are particularly exciting for children, who can collect prizes along with the beans. The busiest Setsubun event in Tokyo, held at Sensoji Temple in Asakusa, attracts over 100,000 visitors each year.
As with everything in Japan, Setsubun traditions vary across the country. Another widespread Setsubun custom, which originated in the Kansai area, is the eating of ehomaki, an uncut sushi roll. Sushi rolls are typically cut into slices, but during Setsubun, the cutting is thought to symbolize cutting good fortune, so the rolls are left whole. The roll is supposed to be eaten in silence, while facing a certain direction particular to that year. In recent years enjoy the makizushi rolls wherever you are in Japan as they can be found in convenience stores all over the country.
Iwashi, sardines, are also associated with Setsubun in many parts of the country. In some areas, a fish was skewered through a sprig of holly, and roasted outside the front of the home, because the strong smell of the smoke was thought to help ward off oni as well. The fish might’ve been skewered whole, or the head skewered and the body included as part of the Setsubun meal. Sardines were typically skewered through the eyes to symbolize impairing an oni. Some shrines and families still partake in this tradition or modern versions of it, such as leaving sardine heads outside the front door.
However you celebrate it, we wish you a happy and auspicious setsubun. “Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!” to all!
Featured photo by Yayu Wang from Yayaland Studio