So you survived O-shogatsu (Japanese New Year’s) and are looking forward to the end of March and the blooming of the cherry trees, but the reality is there are at least 60 more days to go before a single pink blossom appears. While it will not bring the blossoms any closer, did you know that in Japan, spring actually starts on February 3rd?
In Japan, Setsubun is traditionally the day before the beginning of spring. The name literally means “seasonal division,” but it usually refers to the division between winter and spring, properly called Risshun and celebrated yearly on February 3 as part of the Spring Festival (Haru Matsuri). In its association with the lunar new year, Setsubun can be (and was previously thought of as) a sort of New Year’s Eve, and so was accompanied by a special ritual to cleanse away all the evil of the former year and drive away disease-bringing evil spirits for the year to come. This special ritual is called mamemaki or literally “bean throwing.”
The custom of mamemaki is still performed at shrines and temples all over Japan (and if you have kids, you’ll also notice them raving about throwing beans at their classmates soon as elementary schools do it too!) Roasted soybeans (called “fortune beans”) are thrown either out the door or at a member of the family wearing an oni (demon or ogre) mask, while the people recite “Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!” (Demons out! Fortune in!) and slam the door. The beans are thought to symbolically purify the home by driving away the evil spirits that bring misfortune and bad health with them.
Then, as part of bringing luck in, it is customary to eat roasted soybeans, one for each year of one’s life, and in some areas, one for each year of one’s life plus one more for bringing good luck for the year to come. You’ll also start noticing the area convenience and grocery stores will be selling a long uncut makizushi roll called eho-maki (lit. “lucky direction roll”). It’s to be eaten in silence on Setsubun while facing the yearly lucky compass direction, determined by the zodiac symbol of that year.
Here are some of the more popular places to take part in the Setsubun festivities in the Tokyo area. If you live near a shrine, then you might want to check with the officials there to see if they’ll have one. It’s a good chance to talk to your neighbors and possibly be pelted with beans by their kids… Just be gentle with the little demons and ogres!
Perhaps the oldest organized Setsubun festival happens at Tokyo’s most famous temple and tourist destination. Senso-ji is Tokyo’s oldest temple, it is known as the temple of the Asakusa Kannon and draws millions of visitors every year. The setsubun festival is well known for having celebrities throwing the beans around; be sure to come early, because there’s always a crowd.
That’s right, the actual tower observation deck and not Zozoji Temple next door. That temple’s priests are joined by the tower’s cone-headed mascots to toss the beans around… When they’re done, you can buy some eho-maki from a stall on the same floor. This festival has taken place on the 333 meter tower since it was built in 1958 at the 150 meter observation platform.
This shrine near the Akihabara area always has a big mixture of Japanese tradional and pop culture in its Setsubun ceremonies. The temple site is over 1200 years old, so you will have the formal ancient processions, but since Akiba is around the corner, don’t be surprised to see a member of AKB48 or someone in a Gundam costume tossing beans at you as well.
–By Jason L Gatewood