Saturday, August 6, 2011

Japanese Holidays: 節分 Setsubun

 In Japan, February 3rd is known as Setsubun. It is the day before the first day of spring which is called Risshun. In America, the first day of spring is celebrated on March 20th, the vernal equinox, But in many parts of Asia, it is celebrated on February 4th, the midpoint between the vernal equinox and the winter solstice. Actually, there are four setsubun each year, one for each season, but it is the spring setsubun that gets all the attention. According to the old lunar calendar, the first day of spring was also the first day of the new year, so the spring setsubun was a kind of new year’s eve festival. It was a time to cleanse away any bad luck(or spirits) of the old year and usher in good luck for the new year.

The main activity on this day is a cleansing ritual involving the oni(the Japanese ogre or devil) and soy beans and is called mamemaki. You take roasted soybeans and throw a few towards the window and recite a chant:

Oni wa soto!(Demons go out) Fuku wa uchi!(Good luck come in)

This is repeated for each room in the house and finally the front door, traditionally performed by the head of the household. In old days this was taken rather seriously, but today it’s good fun, especially for kids. It’s common to get a plastic or paper oni mask. We do this at my house. I put on the mask and stand in front of the door and growl and my daughters take turns throwing beans at me and I pretend to run away. Afterward, you are supposed to eat the same number of beans as your age and in some places plus one more for good luck. The roasted soybeans are pretty good and taste kind of like peanuts. Supermarkets and convenience stores all over Japan sell inexpensive sets of soy beans and oni masks. In addition, some people put sardine heads and holy branches near the front door. This is supposed to drive away evil oni or spirits.

The other custom on this day is the eating of long maki-zushi or sushi rolls. You are supposed to stand facing that year’s good luck direction and eat the sushi roll. They say you shouldn’t speak or pause until finishing. I think this makes for a slightly absurd, amusing image of all the family members standing silently without looking at each other, eating these long rolls. When buying maki-zushi or the beans, there is often a small, cheap compass included to mark the good luck direction.

There are celebrations at shrines and temples all over Japan. Priests and invited guests will stand on a platform and throw roasted soybeans wrapped in colorful foil, candy, money, and other prizes onto the crowd. At bigger temples, they have celebrity guests like sumo wrestlers. The temples are decorated in traditional festive colors of red and white. The atmosphere can get rather wild with people trying to catch the prizes, just like the throwing of beads from floats during Mardi Gras.

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