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Trivia on the Traditional Japanese Festival, Setsubun

In Japan, there is a traditional event called “setsubun” that has been held in February since ancient times. Aside from regular households, it is also held in shrines and other places as a major event. Let’s talk about this tradition.

What is Setsubun?

The term “setsubun” originally meant “to divide the seasons”. It used to refer to the day before the season changes – risshun (first day of spring), rikka (first day of summer), risshu (first day of autumn), and ritto (first day of winter). Under Japan’s old lunisolar calendar, risshun – which marked the start of the new year – was deemed the most important, so the term “setsubun” came to indicate the “day before risshun” over time. The day of risshun points to the day when the angle of the sun is at 315 degrees, so the day of setsubun moves forward or goes back each year. Setsubun in 2018 will fall on February 3rd (Saturday).

Mamemaki

Under onmyodo (way of Yin and Yang) in the middle ages, it was thought that the night of setsubun was the day when oni (demons or ogres) and mamono (evil spirits) that are usually hidden tend to appear. “Mamemaki” was born as a ritual for driving away these bad elements. This ritual aims to banish the demons by hitting them with roasted soybeans (“mame” in Japanese), which summons good fortune in return. Soybeans are believed to be where the spirits of the harvest dwell, so they are the items most used in shrine rituals, next to rice. The “mame” sound is also understood to mean to throw “mame” (beans) to the “ma no me” (eyes of the demon) to “ma wo messuru” (destroy the devil).

How to Correctly Perform Mamemaki

There may be differences depending on the region, but here is the most common way to do this ritual.

It is crucial that the beans that will be thrown are roasted beans. Now, throw beans towards the outside of the house from the inside, using the doors and windows, while shouting “Oni wa soto” (Demons out!). Afterwards, throw the beans to the inside of the house from the outside while loudly saying “Fuku wa uchi” (Good luck inside!).
There is also a legend that once mamemaki is done, you have to eat your own age (one for each year of your life + 1) in roasted beans without saying a word, so as not to catch a cold or get sick.

What to Eat During Setsubun

Aside from the roasted beans, there are several other dishes that are eaten during setsubun.

Eho-maki

Eho-maki is a thick sushi roll that is made by wrapping vinegared rice, vegetables, egg, and many other ingredients in nori (seaweed). You must not slice it using a knife in order to ensure that the relationships and good fortune are not broken, so each person has to eat one whole roll of this sushi. What is important is to eat it toward the “eho” (favorable direction) – the direction of the deity that controls good fortune for the year (it is apparently a little south of south-southeast in 2018). This sushi has come to be sold in convenience stores in recent years, so if you find it, make sure to taste it! If you speak when eating this sushi, luck will escape, so you cannot say a word until you’re done eating. You must eat the sushi while saying your wish to yourself.

Iwashi

People say that it is a tradition to eat iwashi (sardines) during setsubun to get rid of the darkness (evil), especially in Western Japan. There is even a legend saying that by grilling the sardines, the smoke that is created will drive away ill will. Furthermore, the demons hate anything with a strong smell and sharp objects, so there is also a custom of skewering the head of a grilled sardine in a holly leaf, and then hanging it at the entrance or eave of the house to ward off evil.

Soba

There are apparently various theories on the reasons why soba (buckwheat noodles) is eaten on the day of setsubun. Some of these theories are that its shape incorporates the wish for a “long and frugal life”, that it follows the strength of the plant called “soba” that is strong against bad weather, and that it can be bitten off easily, so it signifies the “cutting off of misfortune”.

Spots that do Mamemaki in Setsubun

Setsubun-sai/setsubun-e (setsubun festivals/rituals) are mainly held in shrines and temples all over Japan.

Okunitama Shrine (Tokyo)

If you are in Eastern Japan, then Okunitama Jinja (Okunitama Shrine) in Tokyo is popular for its setsubun events. Here, sumo wrestlers, actresses, and other celebrities, athletes, and many other guests come to perform grand mamemaki rituals. Tourists and sightseers can also join in the ceremonies if they register in advance.
※The details of the schedule for 2018 have yet to be determined

Okunitama Shrine (Tokyo)

3-1 Miyamachi, Fuchu-shi, Tokyo

Rozan Tendaiko-ji (Kyoto)

If you are in Western Japan, then Rozan Tendaiko-ji (Rozanji temple) is the place to be if you want to experience setsubun events. Here, they hold a thrilling ritual wherein three ogres in different colors enter a hall, only to be chased out of the temple gate by bows that were made for driving away bad spirits. Mamemaki is also held.
※The details of the schedule for 2018 have yet to be determined

Rozan Tendaiko-ji (Kyoto)

397 Kitanobe-cho, Teramachi-dori Hirokoji-agaru, Kamigyo-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto

As setsubun draws near, supermarkets, convenience stores, and other establishments throughout Japan begin to sell roasted soybeans and other products related to the event. If you are interested, then please check them out.

*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.

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