Throwing beans, impaling sardines and eating gigantic sushi rolls are all apart of Japan’s more unique festival known as Setsubun.
If you happen to be in Japan on the 3rd of February, lucky you! You can throw beans at old men wearing demon masks. The events surrounding this festival may be baffling, but it all has a purpose. “Demon out! Luck in!” Get rid of your evil spirits and bring in good luck by joining in on the festivities. Who knows! There might be a lover or a lottery win for you at the end.
Let’s get some Japanese history out of the way.
History Of Setsubun
Setsubun known as sechi-wakare in ancient times was a term indicating the day before the four main seasonal turning points in a year. Risshun (setting-in of spring), Rikka ( the beginning of summer), Risshu (the beginning of autumn) and Rittou (the first day of winter). Later it became a word that represents only the day before Risshun which is the 3rd of February probably because bean throwing four times a year would be overkill even for Japan’s standards. There are 20 more seasonal turning points relying on the movement of the sun known as Nijushi Sekki.
The rituals that were practised was initially known as Tsuina (driving away pain) or Oniyari (driving away ogres) which emerged from ancient Chinese culture dating back as far as 2600 years ago. First held at court on the last day of the year (O-misoka) in 705 AD, when the lunisolar calendar was still in place. Limited people were allowed to go inside the sacred building (Seiryouden).
People would chase around the ones playing ogres or oni in Japanese, who symbolized evil spirits that were thought to cause sickness, natural disasters, coldness and darkness with peach tree bows and reed arrows. This evolved into what is known as the famous bean throwing custom known as Mamemaki during the Muromachi period.
Now to the fun part of Setsubun…Bean Throwing!
This awesome idea was born from fortune telling beans known was mameura from ancient Japanese agricultural communities. Yes, fortune telling! They roasted these “magical” beans (daizu) to determine weather and fortune by seeing how they were done.
The Japanese term for this awesome tradition is Mamemaki and the beans are called fuku mame (fortune beans). They are often thrown inside and outside of the house on Setsubun to drive away evil spirits, as well as invite good luck and health for the family. And it’s a good excuse to get some much needed aggression out!
An odd mamemaki fact is eating an equal number of fuku mame to your age brings you good luck and if you’re over 50 it’s going to require some work to get that luck. A Japanese wooden box often used to serve sake (isshou-Masu) is filled up with soybeans and offered at the altar in households. It was customary for the Toshiotoko 年男 (the male who was born on the same animal year of the Chinese Zodiac) to perform Mamemaki.
These days the custom is more relaxed. It is usually adults in the households wearing oni masks being chased by the children throwing beans at them, while shouting “Demon out! Luck in!” (鬼は外! 福は内! Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!)
The stinky part of Setsubun: Yaikagashi
Perhaps the most unpleasant ritual of Setsubun is Yaikagashi, which is essentially using nasty odours to keep evil demons from snatching that potential lottery win and lover. The term comes from Yakikagashi which literally translates to “something roasted to make it smell.” This stinkier practice is perhaps the oddest of Setsubun. It is placing roasted sardine heads impaled on a twig of holly in the entrance to your home.
The reason sardines are used is because they are fish containing lots of oil, when grilled emits smoke. The stinky smell supposedly drives away evil spirits from entering. Holly is used as a talisman against evil since it stays green in winter. The body of the fish is often eaten by the households.
There is a surprisingly logical explanation as to why this bizarre practice exists. Back in ancient times, farmers didn’t have pesticides so they would burn items that cause foul smells such as human hair, sardines, onions and chives to drive away insect pests during the time of Rissun. This was known as Mushi no Kuchiyaki and it’s actually pretty ingenious. But if you’re afraid of what you might smell during Setsubun, you are in the clear! For obvious reasons, it is not so common to leave impaled sardine heads at entrances today.
Now to the more pleasant part of Setsubun, let’s get to food!
Giant Maki (Eho-maki)
Another interesting but delicious practice during Setsubun is eating Eho-maki 恵方巻. This is one gigantic, thick and fat piece of maki that originated from Osaka! There are seven key ingredients to this maki; simmered shiitake mushrooms, dried gourd (kanpyo), cucumber, rolled omelet (tamagoyaki), eels, sweet fish powder (sakura denbu) and freeze-dried tofu (seasoned koyadofu) for the Seven Deities of Good Fortune called Shichifukujin; Ebisu, Daikokuten, Bishamonten, Benzaiten, Fukurokuju, Jurōjin, Hotei, and Kichijōten.
Whoa! Talk about information overload!
Eating this oishii roll will bring you good health, happiness, and prosperity. But there is a customary way to eating this on Setsubun: in complete silence. And it must be eaten uncut and in the lucky direction for the year that’s determined by the annual zodiac symbol. For 2017 it is north-north-west. Don’t stop eating once you start and make your wish! Yes, those are a lot of rules but if it means more money in the bank…so why not!
The ancient Japanese agricultural farm customs Mamemaki and Yaikagashi got mixed with the court rituals of Tsuina and Oniyarai from China that became today’s Setsubun.
Where To Enjoy Setsubun
If you’re a foreigner wanting to join in some bean throwing fun, shrines and temples hold Setsubun! Sensoji temple in Asakusa was the first to perform this ritual for the commoners and till this day it draws in large crowds. Here “Long life and good fortune, come in” because it is believed there are no evil spirits in front of Kannon (Buddhist deity of mercy). There’s even a dance party called the Fukuju-no-mai Dance (Seven Deities of Good Fortune Dance). After the performance, famous entertainers and cultural figures start throwing beans and that’s when excitement begins!
Shinshoji Temple in Narita is another great location to view this spectacle! The temple’s festivties include mamemaki but instead of beans there is candy! It is open to the public and features celebrities such as sumo wrestlers, musicians and actors which can be seen on tv news programs. Setsubun can be enjoyed at smaller shrines and temples as well if you’re not a fan of crowds.
So Setsubun is essentially a crazy mashup of ancient Japanese agricultural farm customs and some demon chasing practises from ancient China. It’s a great opportunity to throw beans at strangers and not end up with your hands cuffed behind your back. We can’t forget eating giant sushi, impaling sardines and at the end of it all a bunch of luck to hopefully last you until next year. Don’t miss out on your chance to get rich at this one of a kind Japanese festival on February 3rd.
The Craziest Setsubun Event
Imagine if the Bean Throwing Festival was on steroids. That’s Sugoi Mamemaki, an event held for the 6th consecutive time this year which consists of bringing talents, porn actresses on a stage and throwing 4 tons of soy beans at them. I’m not joking. 4 tons!
Each member of the audience receives 4 kilos of soy beans to throw at the celebrities. Don’t believe me? Check out this video of last year’s event:
About Japanese Festivals
Japanese festivals (Matsuri) often feels like the pinnacle of what this country has to offer. Happening upon one during a visit can feel like winning a vacation lottery. There are so many aspects to it, and each one so unique from the other. There are an uncountable number of maturis’ and almost every shrine celebrates one of it’s own on an annual basis. Celebrations can involve shrine deity, season, or historical events and can last for days.
A common sight is the shrine deity (kami) to be carried through the town in mikoshi (palanquins). There are decorated floats (dashi) accompanied by flute and drum music.
One of the more shocking ones is Onbashira festival that only happens every six years in Nagano which is the restoration of four shrine buildings at the Suwa Grand Shrine.
And the craziest part are the festival participants riding the onbashira (honoured pillars) as they are slid down the mountain!
We have an article entirely dedicated to this, check it out!
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