“Out with Ogres! In with Good Luck!”

9703ea2d24bbd4811374c0619116bc71Yesterday marked the final day of daikan (the winter season), according to the ancient Japanese calendar, which makes today the first day of risshun (spring). Traditionally, the seasonal shifts were considered a time when evil forces were at their strongest. Ogres and malevolent spirits, in particular, posed the greatest threat to one’s health and fortune.

It is no surprise, then, that there is a festival held on the first day of spring to thwart these harbingers of bad luck. Setsubun, or the Bean-Throwing Festival, is held every year on February 3rd. While many westerners are familiar with the custom of Groundhog’s Day on the 2nd, and its predictably anti-climatic proceedings, Setsubun is chock-full of activities for the family.

Setsubun originates from Kansai (Kyoto, Osaka, Nara), and is dated back to the Muromachi Period (1336-1573, after the capital of Japan was moved back to Kyoto). There are two principle “characters” for the event: The Ogre, and Lady Fortune/Lady Good Luck, though the latter is rarely enacted in the games.

On Setsubun, the head of the household wears an ogre mask and is chased by the rest of the family, who throw makemame, or good luck beans, at him, yelling “Out with ogres! In with good luck!” The beans used are baked soy beans, most likely for their perceived health effects. The game is meant to be a charm, driving out evil spirits from the home.

Some ogres think they’re not getting fair treatment though. (Funny commercial for SoyJoy, a nutrition bar in Japan. In English, so feel free to watch!

Of course, if you live in southern Kansai, there is an additional talisman you can employ: hiiragi iwashi, or Holly Sardine (not misspelled!)


Hiiragi Iwashi is exactly what it’s translated as. A cooked sardine head is skewered on a branch of holly and placed outside the home. This talisman wards off ogres, who are believed to hate sardines as much as vampires hate garlic, with the added protection of the holly branch. Ogres think their eyes might be poked out on such sharp leaves, so avoid them when necessary. As a talisman, it does a pretty good job–but your neighborhood cat might also consider it dinner!

In Kyoto, while the tradition of hiiragi iwashi is not commonly practiced, people do still eat sardines on Setsubun. There are also festivals all over the city, including the more famous events at Yasaka Shrine (maiko, or apprentice geisha, throwing beans), or at Yoshida Shrine (when men in ogre costumes come out).

At home, there are still two more ways to improve your luck.


Fukumame are beans that are eaten to bring luck. They are the same beans (usually) that are thrown, but in this case, the observer eats as many beans as they are years old. I’ve heard some conflicting information on this, when many of my students saying that you should always eat that number, plus one, for the coming year. In the end, I think it’s much like the extra candle on the cake tradition in North America: observe it if you wish, but it’s not that strict. This year, I ate thirty!


The other “edible luck” of Setsubun is ehomaki, or auspicious rolled sushi. While ehomaki comes in all thicknesses, the length is always the same. The sushi is eaten while facing the current year’s lucky direction (for 2015 it is southwest). The most important part of this charm is that once you begin eating, you are not allowed to speak until you are finished.

This is my favorite part of Sestubun, since I love sushi, and the Setsubun fever in the supermarkets means I can buy lots of sushi rolls very cheaply. 🍣

I wonder if I eat three rolls I’ll get three times the luck… I suppose there’s only one way to find out!


10 thoughts on ““Out with Ogres! In with Good Luck!”

  1. Customs, pretty much all of them, are so weird.
    I mean, the idea of a groundhog predicting winter?
    And eating beans for good luck?
    Or hanging carved turnips in your windows?
    It’s all so strange and “What the heck?!”

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Loved the post, Alex–and I really loved the video! It was so well done. But why were the Ogres “westerners?” No complaints, they were total eye-candy, but just curious if the mythology suggests a certain character or was that just central casting doing it’s own thang?
    And I think I’d choose Setsubun over Groundhog Day any day, as you’re right, there’s so much to the festival. What a total blast.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m not quite sure why the ogres were foreigners, but there are a lot of foreigners in Japanese commercials. And most of them can’t speak Japanese well enough to not get dubbed over. (Tommy Lee Jones and Shwartzenegger [crap, I actually spelled that right!] excluded.)

      It was a ton of fun, even though eating my ehomaki in a southwesterly direction meant facing my garbage can, haha!


  3. Although the dates were slightly different, I remember while travelling in the Czech Republic and Hungary of a day “Wet Monday” followed by “Wet Tuesday” (for retribution)
    Young boys would toss water on young girl and “spank” them with pussy willows.
    The same would happen in reverse on Tuesday. The roots of the Eastern European event may have been a purification of the spirit and removal of the evil spirits that might happen in a Baptism.
    I know the niece that travelled with us was dismayed as strange young boys pelted her with water balloons. She got back at them the following day.
    Strange when our customs are borne…Out with the Ogres!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I love the idea of this! It sounds really fun (though I’d prefer pussy willows to water balloons, yikes!) Customs are indeed a strange beast, and there are a LOT of them over here.


  4. In the far north of the cold Baltic, from where my people hail, about as far north as Juneau Alaska, the houses often have a species of mountain ash planted in front. The red berries supposedly frighten away demons (“jod” in Latvia, who are mischief-making trolls). Growing up when there was a particularly long string of not so good things happen such as breaking dishes, then faucet not working, etc, (things right up the jod’s alley) my mother would cut down some of the mountain ash branches with the red berries and bring them inside. Interestingly, the bad luck would always seem to go away.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s really fascinating, Katherine. How long did you live up in Alaska? (Actually, are you still there? I have no idea where you live! 😯 )

      I couldn’t seem to find any art or artistic representation of the Jod. Do they have nay particular characteristics?


      1. Hi Alex,

        Actually I live in Rockies–Boulder, Colorado. My younger brother lived in Alaska. He was one of the “Deadliest Catch” guys. Just mentioned Latvia is as far north as Alaska to make the “polar” aspect seem more exotic for my Baltic roots. Could not find any real Jodi even on the Latvian sites using Latvijan (Latvian) key words. Jodi look a lot like Daruma, so that’s why I thought of it, though jod have the role of trolls in Baltic mythology.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Thanks for searching! Looks like there is an untapped market for mythology illustrators. 🙂

          Also, pretty cool about your brother! N J loves that show. 🙂


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