Yesterday 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!