Each year, on the third of February, harried fathers across Japan put on paper demon masks and are pelted with roasted soybeans by their children, who cry “Oni wa soto, Fuku wa uchi!” (Demon out, Fortune in!) until dad flees out the front door into the night air. Or turns on his children to teach them what comes of wasting perfectly good soybeans, although strictly speaking this is regarded as unorthodox. This is Setsubun, traditionally seen as marking the first day of spring.
You’ll see packets of soybeans and the masks prominently displayed in supermarkets in the days leading up to February 3, and it’s good fun at home, especially for younger children. With the Kansai area, Hiroshima also shares the tradition of eating a large makizushi roll while facing a lucky direction, which changes from year to year depending on the Chinese zodiac. You may also be surprised to see doorways adorned with the heads of sardines impaled on twigs of holly, yet another way of rendering the home unappealing to possible demonic incursion.
But temples and shrines across Japan also hold Setsubun observations, and it can make for a fun trip. There are a number of places in and around Hiroshima to see Setsubun celebrated publicly, and you can expect good crowds wherever you end up. It’s definitely worth a visit, as these celebrations can be colorful, loud and performed in a spirit of good humor that isn’t always on display at such places.
Before switching to the Gregorian calendar in the Meiji period, Japan’s annual rituals were based on the Chinese calendar and Setsubun was once a part of these New Year’s celebrations around the time of the lunar New Year. In China and Japan, there was a belief (perhaps there still is) that misfortunes are caused by demons, called oni. The practice of purging one’s house of oni was a New Year’s Eve ritual in China, adopted in Japan along with Buddhism in the 8th century. OK, but why, you may ask, why are soybeans thought to drive the demons away?
To find an answer, we go back in time. To start with, we look at Chinese numerology, where many core concepts come in fives to correspond to the five elements—wood, water, fire, metal, and earth. Soybeans were included in what was designated as the “5 kinds of cereal,” or the five most important crops. Soybeans (or “daizu”, literally “the big bean”) were particularly powerful because they were believed to contain the spirits of the other cereals combined. Mame, or bean, is a homophone for mame (魔滅), which means “destroying evil,” so soybeans were thought especially effective against demons—like how garlic is a powerful ward against vampires in the West. And that is how throwing soybeans at demons became the central ritual of Setsubun. This ritual purges one’s life of all the invisible oni demons in one’s surroundings to ensure health and good fortune for the coming year.
In schools in Japan, students typically make oni masks for Setsubun. The principal of the school or the teachers might dress up as oni, and children will throw roasted soybeans at them, calling “Oni wa soto! (Out with the demons!) Fuku wa uchi! (In with good fortune!).” This ceremony is repeated at homes and temples throughout Japan.After the bean-throwing ritual (mamemaki), people count out and eat the number of roasted soybeans equal to their age plus one more to protect them in the year ahead. These beans are called fuku-mame (good fortune beans).
For good measure, people might also decorate the outside of their houses with prickly holly leaves and sardine heads because oni demons are known to avoid the sharp thorns of the holly and to detest the smell of sardines. In the Kansai region, it’s also typical to eat ehoh-maki, an over-sized makizushi roll with seven ingredients (representing luck). In recent years, eating this traditional dish has become popular throughout Japan.
All of the events listed here are free of charge.
This shrine, not far south of Peace Memorial Park, has made something of a name for itself for trying to add a little something extra to its celebrations.
For Setsubun, Sumiyoshi Shrine begins by introducing its demons, representing misfortunes and embarrassing public figures of the previous year. The costumes and acting can tend to the hammy, and the crowds love it. As the demons approach the shrine, they are overcome and subdued by the stench of hundreds of sardine heads being grilled by “miko” shrine maidens in white. Later, the heads are handed out to visitors to be carried home.
Finally the “mamemaki,” or bean throwing, begins in earnest. From the steps of the Shrine’s main hall, the head priest and other attendants fling packets of soybeans and other small treats to the crowd. Fun all around.
Place: Sumiyoshi Shrine, 5-10 Sumiyoshi-cho, Naka-ku, Hiroshima city. On Route 2, about a five minute walk south of Peace Memorial Park.
Time: Sunday, February 2, from 14:00
This large Shingon sect temple on the island of Miyajima holds its own Setsubun event every year. With thousands in attendance, and the sound of taiko in the air, it can feel a little frenzied, especially when the beans and lucky mochi cakes begin sailing into the grasping crowd, but it’s an unforgettable event done with all the style for which Daishoin is rightly known. If your own Chinese birth year corresponds with the current year, you’re welcome to take the stage and help with the throwing out of treats.
Place: Daishoin Temple, 210 Miyajima-cho Hatsukaichi-shi. A twenty-minute walk from Miyajima’s ferry terminal, up the hill from Itsukushima Shrine. Pick up a free map at the terminal if you think you’ll have trouble finding it.
Time: Sunday, February 2, from 10:00 to 13:30
One of Hiroshima City’s most important shrines, Gokoku Shrine stands within the precincts of Hiroshima Castle in the heart of the city. The Setsubun celebration here can draw large crowds, and one of its main draws is the inclusion of traditional Japanese archery, with a shrine priest demonstrating his prowess with the bow as he lobs arrows at a target depicting the face of another of the festival’s signature beleaguered and sardine-phobic demons. Then priests clamber atop a temporary tower erected before the Shrine’s torii gate to shower the visitors with packets of beans and other assorted treats.
Place: Gokoku Shrine, 2-21 Motomachi, Naka-ku Hiroshima-city. Within the grounds of Hiroshima Castle, north of Pacela and the Rihga Royal Hotel downtown.
Time: Sunday, February 2, from 15:30 to 16:30