Today is Setsubun (節分), which means nothing more thrilling than ‘seasonal division’, or ‘seasonal separation’ but is also known as the ‘bean-throwing festival’, which clearly sounds like far more fun. For a couple of weeks now, my local convenience store has been selling bags of roasted soybeans as part of a kit, with a plastic mask of a rather fearsome-looking red-faced demon, like the one at the top of this post. Traditionally, the father in a family takes the part of the demon, and, wearing the mask, is chased out of the home by the other members of the family, hurling roasted soybeans at him and shouting, ‘Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!’ (鬼は外！福は内！), which translates to the title of this post, ‘Demons out! Good luck in!’ Apparently, this custom is not as common as it used to be, and people are more likely to go to a temple or shrine and watch a similar ceremony there instead. I don’t know about that, there have certainly been plenty of roasted soy beans and demon masks on sale in my neighbourhood.
As well as throwing the beans about, it is also a custom to eat some; either one for each year of your life, or one for each year of your life plus one. They have a nutty flavour (from being roasted, I suppose) and are a healthy snack, so I happily did that, but didn’t do any throwing about of the same. When I opened the small bag
Another Setsubun custom that has made its way up from Kansai (west Japan, Osaka), is the eating of large makizushi, or rolled sushi, called ehomaki (恵方巻), or ‘direction of blessing roll’, and when I first lived in Japan I didn’t see them in Kanto (east Japan, Tokyo), but in the last few years they have been sold in supermarkets and convenience stores. The promotional effort is similar to the marketing used to sell strawberry shortcakes for Christmas, and my local convenience stores have been taking reservations for weeks. These rolls are traditionally eaten facing a certain direction, which I believe changes from year to year, and without stopping, while making a wish. Given the size of these things, it sounds like quite a challenge. On my way home this afternoon, even the local Indian restaurant had got in on the act, selling what looked like large tortillas filled with some kind of curry mixture.
Setsubun is not a national holiday, but since it is close to the lunar New Year celebrated in other parts of Asia, it feels to me like the first sign that spring is just around the corner. Most days it’s still quite cold in Tokyo, but yesterday was remarkably mild, the sun shines daily and I saw the first plum blossoms today. We’ve chased the demons out, ushered good luck in, and the blossoms are starting to open. It feels like we’re on the threshold of a new season.