There are many unique and interesting customs in Japan but one of the most attention-grabbing is probably Setsubun (the day before the beginning of Spring). Setsubun has many customs surrounding it that date back to the Ming Dynasty in China, that were then adopted by Japan in the Muromachi Era beginning in 1392. It is always celebrated before the lunar New Year, having found a permanent home on February the 3rd of every year. This year will be no different when Setsubun takes place on February 3rd, Risshun (Spring begins) on February 4th, and February 7th marks the 2008 lunar New Year in both Japan and China.
Driving out the oni
Setsubun is filled with many traditions that are rich in both spirit and creativity. Back when I was attending a Japanese college in Kobe, many of the teachers expressed a great delight when Setsubun came around. They never seemed to grow tired of telling tales of how Setsubun first came to be. Most of these tales included an oni (a demon or ogre) and the throwing of dried out soy beans. According to folklore of the 13th century, these oni could crop up anywhere and the only way to get rid of them was to scare them off with the strong smell of burning sardines, the smoke of burning wood, and a loud procession of drums. That tradition has since evolved into simply throwing beans, or more recently peanuts. The beans were used in a sort of purifying ritual that was meant to cleanse the household of any evil spirits, and their accompanying bad luck. This bean throwing, referred to as mamemaki, is performed by the oldest male in the household. While chanting, “Oni wa soto, Fuku wa uchi” (Out with the demons, in with the good luck), the roasted soy beans are thrown around the house, and outside the doors and windows, sometimes at a member of the family wearing an oni mask. Afterwards, it is customary to pick up a number of beans corresponding to your age and eat them, adding an extra one for good luck in the next year.
Although Setsubun used to be confined to the Kansai region, it is now spreading throughout Japan thanks to the combined marketing efforts of convenience stores and supermarkets. In preparation for the mamemaki, local supermarkets and convenience stores set up a small section visible by the front doors or windows in order to sell soy beans, oni masks, and related items. This is done well in advance of the actual day Setsubun takes place on in order to generate more sales. In addition to the beans and masks, merchants also advertise quite early for eho-maki (fortune direction roll), which is a special uncut maki-zushi (long sushi roll wrapped in seaweed). The fillings for eho-maki vary, with some merchants attempting to make them very lucky by choosing seven ingredients to stuff them with. You’ve probably noticed the advertisements in store windows for the upcoming eho-maki because they’re pretty hard to miss. And if you’ve wandered past a Lawson’s lately, you might have caught sight of their large stuffed makizushi ornaments sitting at the top of their Setsubun display.
How to eat the eho-maki
In case you’re thinking of buying an eho-maki to try on Setsubun, you should first be aware that there is a special way of eating this uncut maki-zushi. It is thought to be lucky to eat the eho-maki while facing the year’s fortune direction. This direction is determined by the Chinese zodiac calendar. Since this is the year of the rat, the direction that you will face while eating your eho-maki is South-South-East. While you are eating the eho-maki, you should refrain from speaking until you have finished it completely otherwise you will ruin your chances at having a good fortune. If you are able to devour your eho-maki in silence, you should be rewarded with longevity, good health, and good luck in all your endeavors.
The first time I ate an eho-maki was probably three years ago. I had just gotten off work and spied a display of them inside a convenience store on my way home from work. Aside from their appealing presentation, I gave no thought to the how or why I was eating them. At that time, I inadvertently ate them in a completely offensive manner. I ate not one but two of them, in front of the television set while occasionally turning my attention to the active internet chat on my computer. I also stopped now and then to comment on the voice chat with my friend, putting the eho-maki down and ignoring it for a while. Having been greedy, I also had trouble finishing both eho-maki rolls because they were quite long, packed with ingredients, and very filling. Half of one ended up spending a night in my refrigerator to serve as a companion to my cereal for the following breakfast. Of course I know better now, after my friend explained the eho-maki eating rules to me. I was always curious to know more about Setsubun and got quite a lot of information from some friends, teachers, and internet sites with appetizing pictures of eho-maki.
A lot of Japanese people that I’ve talked to emphasized the importance of celebrating Setsubun as one of Japan’s many beloved traditions. Aside from the purpose of dispelling the fear of pesky oni(s), the act of tossing beans, and the eating of eho-maki helps bring unification to the family. For the older generation, the upholding of certain traditions is very symbolic and meaningful. For the younger generation, especially children, it’s a great deal of fun and exciting to be able to chase away fearful creatures from legends and storybooks. When asked why eating eho-maki has such significance on Setsubun, the answers given were mixed between the desire for good luck and the enjoyment of a delicious, prepared food.
An encounter with an oni
As for the oni, it’s rather easy to find him in Japan without needing to search too hard. At the moment the oni lurks around every corner, in advertisements, Setsubun merchandise packaging, and even on the internet. However, you might also be able to find an oni in your neighborhood as part of the local scenery. The other day I was fortunate enough to stumble upon my first real oni statue. I was visiting a friend in Ibaraki City and we’d just finished eating a pasta lunch that left us feeling stuffed and restless. So instead of taking the train or bus to our next destination, we decided to walk in order to burn some calories. Along the way, we came to a government building with a big grey statue displayed out in front. I thought that it might be of some unknown anime character because of its wild hair and the fact that it was holding a spiked club or mace. When I asked my friend about the statue, she told me that it was in fact an oni – a very sad oni at that. This oni was said to have been good and kind until he ran into some bad luck. He may have originally been human at one point. His purpose is to protect the city from evil, especially around the shrine, and bring good luck. So not all oni are evil it would seem. Further down that same street, we noticed a shrine that was being guarded by two oni statues, very similar to the larger one that we had just encountered. And, as luck would have it, it turned out to be the very same oni! He seems to be a permanent figure in the city of Ibaraki and is well known by the people who live there.
I’ll bet that you’re wondering exactly what an oni looks like. I was eager to see what a typical oni looked like after hearing all of the stories and legends surrounding them. Basing my knowledge on the many pictures and statues that I have seen, I have come up with a general description of your average everyday oni. One of the physical characteristics that help people empathize with the oni is that he is humanoid, resembling a man of varying statures. However, although the majority of oni are male, there also exists hannya, the female equivalent of the oni. They can be either small or incredibly large, more often than not they are seen wielding an enormous club that is supposedly made of steel to illustrate just how powerful and invincible they are. Their hair is wild and matted in appearance with two horns sticking out of their head. They have sharp claws with either more or less fingers and toes than a human would have, and occasionally an extra eye centered in their forehead. They also come in many different colors with the most common being red and dark blue. Choosing to look somewhat barbaric, the oni favors wearing a loincloth as opposed to regular human attire. According to a number of legends, the oni dislikes soy beans and will retreat if the beans are thrown at them. This is probably how the mamemaki originally came about. As for oni originally being human, it is said that experiencing a bout of extreme anger will transform any normal human into an oni. So perhaps it is best to keep your temper in check lest you chance being turned into one of those wild beasts yourself!
Just how popular is the oni? Well, in 1994, in Kitagami City, in the Iwate prefecture, an oni house was opened and remains a well frequented site to this day. And in the same year, in Ooe, Kyoto, the Japanese Oni Exchange Museum opened and has had well over 70, 000 visitors at the last count. For anyone interested in learning more about the oni, or seeing a wide assortment of masks and statues, a visit is definitely in order. The oni is a most intriguing creature with a colorful history to match, and I wouldn’t mind learning a bit more about them for future storytelling amongst friends.
The end of winter draws nearer
Back to Setsubun… I’m personally looking forward to February 3rd because I’d like to eat a tasty eho-maki, perhaps see some interesting activity at one of the shrines in Kyoto, and because that day marks the end of winter. With the spring will come sakura (cherry) blossoms, picnics, pleasant hospitable weather, and even more exciting festivals. Since that day will also be on a Monday, I will have the entire morning and half of the afternoon off in order to go shopping for the most promising eho-maki. In addition to that, I’d also like to stock up on the peanuts that go along with the festival because they are very crunchy and sweet. They make a delicious midnight snack and go well with tea. There are a number of temples and shrines that will be participating in the mamemaki on Setsubun. Well known celebrities also get in on the action, throwing beans to the audiences that gather for the event. There is a list of shrines and temples in the Kansai and Kanto area that will be holding the mamemaki ceremonies. The closest ones to Osaka are in Kyoto City, including Kitano Tenmangu – the official head shrine of Japan’s Tenmangu shrines, and Kyoto Fushimi Inari – the main shrine for all of the Inari shrines, and also one of the oldest Shinto shrines in Kyoto. If you do visit one of these shrines, you’ll be able to receive your fortune as well as purchase a good luck charm to ensure that you remain healthy and safe from harm for the remainder of the year. You might even get to throw a few beans yourself to join in on the fun. And along the streets, you just might find an interesting oni mask that would go well with the décor in your living room. No home is complete without a mysterious oni mask hanging from the wall!