Feb 03

Happy Setsubun!


The Evil One!

While Setsubun (“seasonal division”) is not a national holiday, it is an important festival held in early February, one day before the start of spring according to the Japanese lunar calendar. For many centuries, the people of Japan have been performing rituals with the purpose of chasing away evil spirits at the start of spring.  Around the 13th century, for example, it became a custom to drive away evil spirits by the strong smell of burning dried sardine heads, the smoke of burning wood, and the noise of drums. (I think the sardine heads would be more than enough, but that’s just me!)  While this custom is not popular anymore a few people still decorate their house entrances with fish heads and holy tree leaves in order to deter evil spirits from entering.

In modern days, the most commonly performed setsubun ritual is the throwing of roasted beans around one’s house and at temples and shrines across the country.  When throwing the beans, you are supposed to shout “Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!” (“Devils out, happiness in”).  Afterwards, you should pick up and eat the number of beans which corresponds to your age. My first introduction to this festival was quite memorable. I walked to a shrine close to my apartment and watched with interest, respectful of the occasion.  I was given some beans by a very old Obaa-san who showed me each move.  When all heck broke loose, bean tossing began to look more like a food fight!  Everyone, from the very young to the very old, let loose!  Of course I joined in and after all the beans were tossed, I received a round of applause for my skills!  I gathered up the number of beans corresponding to my age, and bit into one.  My mood changed to concern over whether I’d lost a filling in my back tooth! 

Waving goodbye, I nodded with great enthusiasm, bowing and smiling, all the while pretending to be eating the rock hard beans. What fun!



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