If there’s one thing that is loved all over Japan, it’s a festival. Setsubun, marking the beginning of Spring in Japan, is no exception. This colourful celebration is one of our absolute favourites here at Japan Centre due to its sheer eccentricity; it includes prancing demonic monsters, frantically throwing soy beans and eating sushi facing in a specific direction. Intrigued? Read on…
What the shizzle is Setsubun?
Celebrated annually on the 3rd of February, Setsubun refers to the transition from one season to another, though in this instance specifically to the joyful hop from Winter to Spring. Realistically it is a little early to be celebrating such things, as much of the northern swathes of the country are still blanketed in snow! Nevertheless, Japanese look forward eagerly to Spring and its association with the universally adored cherry blossoms. Originating with a similar Chinese custom and linked to the Lunar New Year, Setsubun is also all about starting the year afresh, which involves ridding oneself of past evils. These evils manifest themselves as demonic oni, comparable to the ogre in the West. How do revelers achieve this new, evil-free start? In a number of mad and mysterious ways.
One can’t discuss Setsubun festivities without conjuring the image of beans being chucked all over the place, known as mamemaki. This isn’t a desperate, nationwide attempt to grow a beanstalk or a descent into lunacy, but a traditional practice that dates back to the 15th Century and supposedly began with the following tale:
Once upon a time lived a nasty oni who disguised himself as a human and payed a visit to a nearby old woman (as you do). Said oni had a posh hammer with which he fashioned a beautiful, shimmering kimono. The greedy grandma lay her eyes on this charming garb and just knew she had to have it- along with his magic hammer, so conspired to get the oni absolutely sloshed with a combination of sake, umeshu and shochu which she had previously ordered from Japan Centre. The clever oni however saw through her dastardly plan and revealed his true, hideous identity to the toothless old granny. As you’d expect, she was absolutely horrified by this revelation and did as any normal person would do when facing a demonic intruder – proceeded to pelt the beast with a plethora of beans. The (apparently rather sensitive) oni scuttled away into the night, leaving the breathless old lady in a house full of scattered beans, a load of booze and hopefully an altogether less greedy nature. The End. (Anyone else feel a bit sorry for the oni in that story?)
These days people all over Japan visit shrines and temples during Setsubun, where priests and important people like celebs and sumo wrestlers stand elevated and lob beans and other charms all over them. Revelers desperately try and catch these missiles of fortune as they are considered great luck for the beginning of the year. At these events, folk dress up as oni and go around gently hitting shrine attendees with branches, to which the battered folk turn and say “arigatougozaimasu” – as this process imparts good luck. You might think this is all a bit odd, but you could say the same thing about a day honouring the pancake, maypole dancing or hunting easter eggs hidden by an oversized rabbit.
Mamemaki frivolities don’t just take place in shrines and temples but with friends and family at home too. This tends to involve one unfortunate family member (probably poor Uncle Toru) dressing as a horrifying oni and prancing about demonically. Other members of the family armed with a special box proceed to hurl bean after bean at the oni shouting the following mantra:
“Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!”
Which translates as:
“Out with demons! In with fortune!”
This purge ensures the year ahead will be blessed with good luck and no pesky demon oni causing trouble and destruction. Subsequently, mamemaki participants eat the number of roasted beans that corresponds to their age at the time. As you can imagine, this is all jolly good fun for the young whippersnappers but can quite literally be a sickening experience for the elderly, physically and emotionally.
Many items, like our rather dashing oni mask, pop up all over Japan to purchase before Setsubun.
Finally, families pop up a decoration in their doorways made from garlic cloves, onions, twigs of hiiragi (holly) and iwashi (a sardine-like fish) which is said to give keep the oni away for good. How? The fishy smell may entice them, but the hiiragi will sting the curious critters right in the eye, sending them back away from whence they came (again, definitely feeling sorry for these little oni).
Here’s some lads taking a rather chaotic approach to mamemaki:
Eating Ehou Maki
Another weird and wonderful phenomenon that goes down during Setsubun is the consuming of a Ehou Maki, a special sushi roll that measures around 20cm. “That doesn’t sound very weird to me Japan Centre” you say, rolling your eyes and tapping your feet like an impatient manga character. Hold your horses! Here’s the catch: you have to eat it facing a specific direction of good fortune linked to the Chinese Zodiac. See, told you, mad as a box of frogs. Take a look at the following video to see it in action:
We have no idea which is the lucky direction to face in 2015. If you know, please illuminate us in the comments below 🙂