To be sure, Japan has no shortage of fun, fascinating customs and festivals. But if you’re here in early February, be sure to get ready for setsubun. On February 3rd join in to scare off some demons, ensure good luck and count your age in soybeans!
The word setsubun (節分) refers to the division between any two seasons. But these days, setsubun focuses on the celebration that occurs on February 3rd or 4th, otherwise known as risshun (the first day of spring, 立春). Setsubun festivities include a few interesting traditions.
When Japan still used the kyuureki (旧暦), or old lunar calendar, risshun was the official beginning of a new year. To start the year off well and ensure good fortune, people performed a special ritual called mamemaki. To this day, people do mamemaki in their homes, at schools, temples and shrines.
Mamemaki (豆まき, or the bean-scattering ceremony), starts with placing roasted daizu (大豆, soybeans) in a square wooden cup called a masu (升). Traditionally, the head of the household performed mamemaki by throwing the beans both outside and inside the home. The ceremony was sometimes carried out by a male family member born in the corresponding year of the Chinese zodiac.
These days, on setsubun, an adult in the family (often Dad or Grandpa) puts on an oni (demon or ogre, 鬼) mask. He dances around while the rest of the family tosses beans at him, shouting, “Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!” (“Out with demons! In with good fortune!”, 「鬼は外！福は内！」).
This symbolic casting out of the oni dispels any bad luck that remains from the previous year. Throwing some of the beans outside (through an open door or window) ensures that bad luck stays outside. Tossing a few inside makes keeps the good luck in the home.
Children often also make setsubun crafts at school. Sometimes, especially in preschools, they do mamemaki in the classroom.
In keeping with custom, people eat the same number of beans as their age in years to safeguard their health.
Another common setsubun tradition is to eat ehoumaki (恵方巻き, literally lucky direction roll). These sushi rolls feature seven lucky ingredients. Different fillings are used, but all are chosen to represent good health, prosperity, and happiness. Typical examples include shiitake mushrooms, tamagoyaki (sweet grilled egg), eel, koyadoufu (freeze-dried tofu), kanpyo (dried gourd), crab sticks, and sweetened fish powder. Some ehoumaki are more over-the-top luxurious than others.
Cutting an ehoumaki roll is believed to cut the luck of the person eating it! So be careful. Many people also make wishes on their roll, concentrating on their hoped-for outcome as they eat. This custom originated in the Kansai region (the area around Osaka and Kyoto), but these days eating ehoumaki has now become popular throughout Japan.
The name ehoumaki comes from the tradition that one must eat them while facing the designated lucky direction of the year. To successfully carry out this ritual, you should eat your ehoumaki without saying a single word. The lucky direction for 2016 is South-South-East.
You can buy these thick tasty sushi rolls just about everywhere this time of year. The food sections of department stores, supermarkets, grocery stores and convenience stores all stock ehoumaki.
If you’d like to join in on a setsubun celebration at a temple or shrine, try Sensoji Temple in Tokyo. If in Kyoto, visit Kitan Tenman-gu Shrine. And in Osaka, look in on the Ohatsu Tenjin Shrine’s Setsubun Festival.
You can get a glimpse of setsubun traditions from this video filmed at Kitan Tenman-gu from Discover Kyoto.
To ensure your own luck for 2016, why not join in on a setsubun event on February 3rd? Eat a delicious wish-granting sushi roll — or learn to make your own. Plus, when’s the next time you’re likely to get the chance to fight off a demon and toss beans around just for fun?
4 min read