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Setsubun 節分

Setsubun is one of my favorite festivals in Japan. It’s the last day of winter, and it’s celebrated every year on February 3rd as a way of kicking off the Spring Festival season. The word setsubun in Japanese means season’s divide, and although the festival on February 3rd is called setsubun, there are actually four throughout the year according to the Japanese calendar—one for the end of every season. Since it is one of four, the proper name for the spring setsubun is the risshun 「 立春」. I’ve asked around town as to why the end of winter is considered THE setsubun and is more significant than the others. It seems that the end of winter is more significant than the end of any other season, because of the imagery associated with it. Winter is viewed symbolically as a difficult time in a person’s life. In the town where I live, the winter is harsh and cold. There is a lot of snow every year, and back in the day before the comforts of modern living, there were many deaths in winter. The coming of spring was viewed as the coming of new hope. In Japan, there are many proverbs which are rooted in Japanese history. The word for proverb in Japanese is kotowaza 「諺」. There is a really powerful kotowaza that I think ties in well with this imagery of winter changing to spring: 「冬来たりなば春遠からじ」. Pronounced fuyu kitari naba haru tou karaji, the meaning roughly translated is “If winter comes, can spring be far behind?”.  We have all experienced difficult times in our lives. This proverb reminds us that through all difficult times, if you can fight through the bitter winter, there is always a bright spring waiting on the other side.

The setsubun has a very interesting ritual attached to it with the purpose of protecting a household from sickness in the coming year. This ritual is called mamemaki 「豆撒き」, which means bean throwing. On the 3rd of February, the man of the household will dress up as Japanese demon, called an Oni 「鬼」, and stand right outside of the threshold of the family home. The rest of the family, take special roasted soybeans, called fukumame 「福豆」and throw them at the oni while chanting Oni wa Soto, Fuku wa Uchi 「鬼は外!福は内!」, then they slam the door to keep him outside. The phrase that is chanted means “Demon Out! Luck in!”.  Finally, each member of the family will eat one fukumame for every year of their age as a means of gaining good fortune. The fukumame are significant, because the kanji for fuku 「福」 in Japanese means luck, and the kanji for mame 「豆」 means bean. So the roasted soybeans that are being thrown and eaten are supposed to be lucky and thought of as a symbol that can protect a household from bad health and bad luck. I first experienced the mamemaki at Yakami Elementary school.  It was my first setsubun experience, and everyone wanted me to dress up as the oni so that the kids could throw beans at me.  I was thrilled to be asked to participate in such a fun event, and I couldn’t help but laugh at the imagery of a bunch of Japanese kids chasing a foreigner around and throwing beans at him. This year, Amy and I tried our hand at the mamemaki tradition at home. It was a great success! And now, I can safely say that we are out of the sankan-shion season sick-free! Here’s a picture of the Oni mask that we used.

I’d like to add as a side note that there is one specific brand of fukumame that, in my opinion, stands high above the rest: Five Colored Beans called Go Iro Mame 「五色豆」. I tasted them for the first time at school lunch when they were the dessert on the special setsubun menu, and now  I can’t get enough of them. Lucky for me, the day after setsubun, I found about 5 bags in the discount bin at the Foods Foods Village Market by my house. I had a happy bean belly for days. And lucky for me, in some areas of Japan (mine included), people don’t just eat one fukumame for every year of their age, but one more for good luck in the next year to come. I must have banked about 10 lifetimes worth of luck in 1 week. Here’s a picture of Go Iro Mame goodness.

The setsubun is a significant festival, because it precedes a period in Japanese weather known as the sankan-shion 「三寒四温」. The sankan-shion, meaning 3 cold and 4 warm, is the transition period between winter and spring weather marked by 3 days of cold winter weather followed by 4 days of nice, warm spring weather. Because of the variation, the body is thrown off it’s normal pattern, and it is very easy to get sick. This is where the mamemaki ceremony comes in. By throwing the beans at the oni, which acts as a physical manifestation of bad luck, disease, and sickness, you are protecting your household from sickness that is likely to come from the changing in the weather. In addition to the mamemaki tradition, people also often drink Ginger Sake, called shouga-zake 「生姜酒」, as a way of maintaining good health, because it warms the body from the inside and is good for warding off sickness. While shouga-zake is drunk on the 3rd of February, Ginger Tea, called shouga-yu 「生姜湯」, is drunk throughout the sankan-shion. It’s delicious! I highly recommend that everyone try it at least once in their lives. In addition to being tasty, it’s excellent for health too!

As you can see, luck plays a significant role in the setsubun festival. There is yet another tradition which has its roots in the southern central region of the main island of Japan. This area, known as the kansai area of Japan, is known for eating a special ceremonial type of sushi roll called an eho-maki 「恵方巻」. Eho-maki, meaning good luck direction roll, is not cut into smaller pieces and is instead eaten whole while facing the direction determined by the zodiac symbol of the current year. I know right? That’s seems pretty specific to me too. Even though this tradition originated in the kansai area of Japan, nowadays you can reserve your eho-maki roll at just about any convenience store.

Like I said, setsubun is one of my favorite festivals in Japan. What better way to get all the luck you’ll need for the year? It has fun-spirited traditions and serves as a reminder that spring is just around the corner.


Japanese New Year お正月

In other words, the natural starting point of our journey.

Like most countries, excluding China of course, the New Year in Japan falls on January 1st. With the date for New Year’s Day being (1月1日) January 1st (1/1), the New Year’s holiday marks the first of the sekku 「節句」, traditional seasonal festivals which are celebrated on particular days of the year wherein the month is the same number as the day of the month. This tradition of celebrating particular odd numbered days originally comes from the Chinese belief that odd numbers are lucky, but, as you will see in coming posts, it remains nonetheless deeply rooted in Japanese history. Because the New Year festival is the first of the sekku, it’s known as the hatsu-zekku (初節句), with the prefix hatsu- meaning first. In Japan, it is important to ring in the New Year with your family. Grown children will return to their hometown, or furusato 「故郷」 in order to take part in the many traditional Japanese New Year festivities (of which there are many). In Japan, the New Year is viewed as an important time to reflect upon the previous year– recount one’s accomplishments, remember the good times,  let go of regrets; It is also a time to look forward– determine future goals, make plans, figure out personal direction.  On New Year’s Eve, just before midnight, bells are chimed 108 times in Buddhist temples to signal the end of the old year and usher in the new one. Each ringing of the bell is a representation of one of the 108 earthly temptations a person must overcome to achieve nirvana. Anyway, without further ado, I present the first of what I hope will be many more posts entailing customs and traditions associated with Japanese cultural holidays and festivals.

Where to start… Greetings come first right?

Shinnen no aisatsu 「新年の挨拶」

Shinnen no aisatsu means New Year’s greeting. In the few weeks leading up to the New Year, it is quite common to hear the phrase Yoi Otoshi Wo 「良いお年を」being said around the office. This phrase, roughly translated to “Have a great year!” is said to someone when you anticipate that you won’t see them again before the new year. Think of it like a final send-off. This phrase however cannot be used after the New Year. The common greeting heard throughout the month of January, much akin to the western “Happy New Year!” is akemashite omedetou gozaimasu 「明けましておめでとうございます」, or in younger circles, the shortened akeome. This is usually followed by kotoshimo yoroshiku onegaishimasu 「今年も宜しくお願いします」, which means “Thank you for your help and support in the coming year”. Variations on the Happy New Year  greeting include the less common kingashinen 「謹賀新年」 and gashou 「賀正」. Unlike the akeome greeting these two are never spoken and are instead found on New Year’s Greeting Cards. Hey, speaking of which…

Nengajou 「年賀状

A nengajou is a Japanese New Year’s Greeting Card. The giving of New Year’s Card giving tradition of Japan is very similar to that of the Western world. These cards are traditionally written and mailed throughout the month of December in order to arrive on the 1st of January 「元旦」and usually contain updates of family activity over the past year. In Japan, a New Year’s Card is a great way to let that extended family you have living on the other side of the country know what you’ve been up to. In December this year, one of my co-workers had the misfortune of losing his mother to cancer. In my chats with him about it, I learned about a tradition in Japan concerning the sending of New Year’s Card in the event of a death in the family. As a form of grieving, families will not send out the nengajou and will instead send out a mourning card, known as a  mochū hagaki 「喪中葉書」. This card lets friends and family know not to send a New Year’s Card this year as a way of showing respect for the dead. This tradition is one way of engaging in what the Japanese call monifukusu 「喪に服す」, the physical mourning process. In the same way that I am not shaving my beard for 2 months in order to mourn the loss of my grandfather and preserve his memory, Japanese people will also traditionally have some physical manifestation of mourning in order to observe the passing of a family member.

And on that happy note, THIS.

Year of the Dragon

Osechi Ryouri 「お節料理」

Osechi Ryouri refers to the traditional foods that are eaten on New Year’s Eve. Osechi usually comes in a bento-like box and contains many different types of customary Japanese foods. Each dish within the osechi meal contains special meaning for the New Year. The big ones in So in no particular order…

Shrimp 「海老」 – Shrimp at the New Year is grilled with sake and soy sauce and is delicious… or so I’ve heard. I can’t eat shellfish, so I wouldn’t know. In Japanese, the phrase associated with the eating of shrimp at the New Year is koshiga magarumade naga-iki 「腰が曲がるまで長生き」. Roughly translated, this means “May you have a long life until your back is bent over”. Pre-World War II, Japan was basically one giant rice paddy. The common man spent his life on the farm bent over planting rice in the spring and harvesting it in the autumn. After about 60-70 years of doing this, their spines inevitably became very crooked. If you spend any time in the Japanese countryside, you will surely run into one of these bent over farmers. While it is common to mistake them for a goblin at first, if you get to know them, you will find that they are an invaluable spring of knowledge and experience.

Seaweed 「昆布」 – Seaweed, or konbu in Japanese, is eaten as a side in the osechi set. In Japanese, the word konbu is almost the second half of the word yorokobu 「喜ぶ」, which means joy. Eating konbu at the New Year is thought to bestow  joy.

Fish Eggs 「数の子」 – The word for fish eggs in Japanse is kazu no ko. kazu means number and ko means children. This food is eaten with the hopes that young couples will be blessed with good fortune in their ability to have lots of children. In Japan, fish are sometimes seen as a symbol of fertility. Fish have lots of babies, so eating their eggs might bestow their baby making power to you? Hmm.. seems fishy to me.

Japanese Orange 「橙」 – Japanese people eat oranges throughout the winter season in an effort  to stave off sickness, but the oranges eaten at the New Year, called daidai— meaning “for generations”, hold a special significance. Similar to the kazu no ko just mentioned above, it represents a wish of fertility and a healthy family.

Black Beans 「黒豆」 – While definitely not as important as rice, beans play an important part to the Japanese diet (daizu… it’s secretly in everything). The black beans eaten at the New Year are called kuro mame (literally “black” “bean”). The significance here lies in the history of the Japanese language. Before the word genki (healthy, fit) was as prolific as it is today, people would use the word mame 「忠実」. With this in mind, the phrase associated with black beans at the New Year, mame ni naru, essentially means the same as genki ni naru, though less commonly heard in normal conversation. Oh, mame ni naru roughly means “I hope you become healthy and energetic”. It’s a wish for fitness.

Dried Sardines 「田作り」 – It wouldn’t be Japan without some salty fish on the menu. For those of you familiar with the Japanese language, the kanji used to create the word for dried sardines, tadsukuri, is comprised of the kanji for “rice paddy” 「田」 and “to make” 「作り」. Despite the fact that to most Westerners, Japan means Tokyo, anime, and J-pop, the majority of Japan is comprised of farm towns and rice paddies. While the rise of the electronics industry in the 80s and 90s changed the economic infrastructure of Japan, agriculture remains a pervasive economic force. Having participated in a few rice harvests and being surrounded by rice paddies myself, I understand the importance of a good growing season for the livelihoods of Japanese farmers. The word for dried sardines, tadsukuri, contains the symbolism of an abundant harvest. Incidentally, so does the name of the mountain town I live in Mizuho 「瑞穂」.

While this is definitely not a comprehensive list of the traditional Osechi meal, I think it highlights the pieces that hold significant meaning in Japanese culture. I know that by now you’re all curious, and yes, it’s just as pretty as you would have imagined…

Otoshidama 「お年玉」

Now, if you’re not jealous of Japanese New Year’s traditions yet, this one will hook you. I don’t know about any of you, but when I was a kid, all I got for New Year’s was permission to stay up a little bit past my bedtime to ring in the New Year (which coincidentally isn’t even a big deal anymore considering most of the little kids I know nowadays aren’t in bed until 11:30ish anyways. Kids these days… wait, does that make me an old man? D’oh!). In Japan, kids get this nifty envelope with fun pictures on it (pochibukuro) from their parents and grandparents (even relatives sometimes) that is full of cold hard cash. Nothing says I love you and Happy New Year like money in the bank. Most of the kids I’ve spoken to find it common to score ¥10,000+ ($115+) per envelope. Apparently, this practice comes from an older (much less lucrative) New Year’s tradition of adult family members giving foods like oranges or rice cakes to kids. If you happen to be one of the lucky ones and come from a big family, it’s not uncommon to walk away with nearly $1,000 at the New Year.  Looks like Tomoki is going to get that new pokemon game this year after all…

Shinnen no ketsui 「新年の決意」

Here’s something we can all relate to: New Year’s resolutions. Japan is no different from the Western world when it comes to New Year’s resolutions. Everyone from kids to adults decide a goal for themselves over the course of the next year and resolve to stick to it. I usually hear kids wanting to be more diligent in practicing their kanji (they think it’s hard too!). Adults tend to share the same goals as we do: lose weight, exercise more, learn something new, study more, save money, reduce stress. They even have the same inability to stick to those goals. (Hey, we’re all human). In Japanese, there is a word that you call someone who is unable to stick with their New Year’s resolution (or any goal for that matter): mikka bouzu 「三日坊主」, literally “three day boy”. The idea here is that once someone has made a goal, it’s only three days until they have given up on it. As with anything, New Year’s resolutions included, you just gotta keep on keeping on! Here’s a song, introduced to me by my 80 year old co-worker Miss Honsei, to help remind you to stick with it, whatever it is!

Japanese Traditional Games 「お正月の伝統的な遊び」

In Japan, there are certain games that are played with the family during the New Year’s family gathering.

There is the kendama 「剣玉」, which, while at first glance appears to be similar to the Western game of ball in a cup, is actually a test of concentration and dexterity. There is a children’s song of that bears the same name that is used to help with the timing of the ball movements. The rules of the game are taught to kids in elementary school (even before that sometimes), and you play it by yourself.

Another game commonly played is the koma-mawashi 「独楽回し」. This activity consists of tying up string around a top and seeing how long you can spin it. You can play with two or more players, and the winner is determined by whose top spins the longest. I’ve tried this game many many times, but I can never beat the superiority of the children’s tight string coiling and perfect throwing.


Karuta 「カルタ」

Karuta is a card game played by Japanese people old and young alike. It is VERY popular amongst elementary and junior high school kids, and it’s even played during class as a Japanese culture study exercise. The basic rules of the game are that you have two decks of cards. One deck is the reading deck called a yomifuda 「読み札」, and is read by a referee. The other deck, which corresponds to the reading cards, is called the torifuda 「取り札」, and is given to the two participants to be laid out between them. There are many forms of karuta, but the form that is traditionally played on New Year’s Day is a form called uta-garuta 「歌がるた」. The cards that are used in this game are the hyakunin-isshu 「百人一首」. There are many sets of cards for hyakunin-isshu, because hyakunin-isshu is a style of tanka poetry writing where one hundred writers each contribute one poem to the anthology, but the set that is used traditionally on New Year’s Day is the anthology chosen by the famous poet Fujiwara no Teika during the Heian Jidai. The reading cards contain one complete poem, and the pulling cards contain the second half of the poem. Elementary school children are challenged to memorize all one hundred poems and compete inkarutacompetitions. If you have the entire poem memorized, you can grab the card quickly, because you can easily recognize the second half of the poem written on the pulling cards. I’ve been playing this game for about two years now, and I’m proud to say that I have even won a couple games. But, I would be no challenge to those children who have actually memorized all of the poems (and yes! they are out there! I have met them! They are tiny geniuses!)

While the above games are also played throughout the rest of the year, there is one game that is only played around the New Year: fukuwarai 「福笑い」.

Fukuwarai, literally “Luck Laugh”, is basically a bigger version on pin the tail on the donkey with no specific winning goal. The whole point is to have fun and laugh, as indicated by the name of the game becuase the kanji, 笑, means to laugh or smile. According to traditional, as you laugh, luck for the new year comes to you. To start out you have a blank face and separate pieces for the eyes, eyebrows, nose, mouth, and ears. The participant is blindfolded and handed pieces one by one and much try to make the face. As you can imagine, most of the time you get a crazy looking warped face, which leads to much laughing and fun. The traditional fukuwarai face looks like this (see below), but personally I prefer the Anpanman face! It’s much more fun!


Kouhaku Uta Gassen 「紅白歌合戦」

Once a year, the NHK takes a break from its normal TV programming (shows about people eating food/people watching people eating food and reacting to it/food watching people/oh and anime) to bring the people of Japan a spectacular music competition. This competition brings together the top artists of the previous year and pits them together in the classic boys vs. girls fashion. The word kouhaku means red and white and the teams are divided as such. The red team is made up of female artists and the white team is comprised of the male artists. The show is aired on New Year’s Eve and lasts about 4 hours. The outcome is determined by a panel of judges and votes from audience members and viewers at home. The whole feel of this competition is very much like that of a Sport Day 「運動会」 seen in Japanese schools– wherein two to three teams (usually red and white– sometimes with yellow or blue too) compete in various events to claim victory. Occasionally, foreigners are extended an invitation to participate. This year Lady Gaga made her first appearance on the show, and let me tell you, Japanese kids went gaga for Gaga. Now, everywhere you go you hear 10 year old kids saying Lady Gaga this and Lady Gaga that. I think I’m going to be sick…

Kakizome 「書初め」

A kakizome is a form of shodou 「書道」– Japanese calligraphy. A kakizome is the first writing of the New Year and is written on the 2nd of January. In a conversation I had with Miss Shinmori, the clerk at Iwami Higashi Elementary School, I learned that back in the old days, kakizome were full poems and much longer than they are today. Nowadays, kakizome tend to be phrases with good vibes such as “Eternal Beauty”, “Will to Live”, or “Energetic Child”. Throughout the month of December, kids from elementary school through high school choose their kakizome phrase and practice in their calligraphy class. Last year was my first experience writing a kakizome. Because the winter in Ohnan is so snowy and cold, I decided upon 「春を待つ」 – “Waiting for Spring”. It’s apparently tradition to burn your kakizome on the 14th of January at the Sachigo Festival, thus ending the New Year season in Japan. (In the Iwami area where I live however, this festival is not known by the name Sachigo, but rather the Donto Yaki Festival)

Kagami Mochi 「鏡餅」

Mochi is a sweet enjoyed during times of celebration in Japan. The ceremony for making mochi is called mochi tsuki 「餅つき」. Super sticky rice is first soaked in water overnight and then cooked the next day. After cooking, the rice is then pounded with a giant mallet called a kine 「杵」 in a mortar called the usu 「臼」. It’s a lot more difficult than it looks. One person hammers the mochi with the kine and the other person wets and turns it in the usu. Once it has been pounded to perfection, it gets rolled in into tiny balls.

When decorated at New Year, this mochi in its hammered and finalized form is called kagami-mochi 「鏡餅」, which means mirror-mochi. Two balls of mochi, one small one placed on top of one large one, are placed on a stand called a sanpou 「三宝」。There is a white sheet placed on the sanpou under the mochi called a shihoubeni 「四方紅」. This thin, white sheet has an association with fire and is supposed to be a charm to protect the house from fire for the next year. A tiny bitter orange called a daidai (the same daidai mentioned earlier in the section pertaining to osechi-ryouri) with a leaf attached  is placed on top of the smaller mochi ball. The kagami-mochi is then placed on the Shinto altar of the household. If I had a Shinto altar in my house, I would have done  it myself, but seeing it at a friend’s house was good enough for me. Besides, wouldn’t it rot before the second weekend in January (known as the kagami biraki 「鏡開き」) when it’s supposed to be eaten?

Hatsuyume 「初夢」

Since I arrived in Ohnan almost 2 years ago, my good friend Matsumoto has provided me with a wealth of information about Japan. It was thanks to him that I first heard of the hatsuyume. The New Year is a time for firsts in Japan. The prefix hatsu 「初」in Japanese means first. There are a few firsts in Japanese culture that are considered important. The hatsuyume is the first dream of the new year. (Yes, New Year’s traditions get this deep) Apparently though, even though it’s called the first dream of the new year, it’s actually the dream that you have on the night of January 1st. This is because Japanese people are traditionally expected to have stayed up all night the night of New Year’s Eve. Moreover, there is a hierarchy of specific dreams that are said to bring good fortune. It is said that the best thing a person can dream about is Mt. Fuji. Because Mt. Fuji is the highest mountain in all of Japan, it is considered great fortune. Next on the list is a hawk. Wait, what? Yeah, you heard it right, a hawk comes in at number 2 on the good luck new year dream list. In Japanese culture, hawks are considered wise and powerful, so if you dream about them, you are said to receive good fortune for the next year. Now, if you thought the hawk was an unlikely competitor for second on the list, then you’ll likely find number 3 to be the strangest yet. Coming in at number 3 on the list is an eggplant. (Oh, now you’re just making stuff up…) Seriously though, the word for eggplant in Japanese, nasu 「茄子」, also happens to be the same word for the verb “to succeed”. So the story here is that if you dream about an eggplant, you will have decent fortune and have succeed in your endeavors. Matsumoto has been trying ever since he was a kid, but he has yet to dream of any one of these three. Tonight, I will eat an eggplant in his honor to wish him the best of luck in his dreaming endeavors.

Tanjoubi 「誕生日」

I’d like to end this post on a fascinating birthday tradition that I was lucky to discover in one of my many discussions with a local Buddhist monk. Apparently, before Japan was opened up to the Western world following World War II and all this ♪’Happy Birthday to You’♪ business was introduced to their culture, Japanese people did not celebrate their own individual birthdays. Rather, on New Year’s Day everyone collectively aged 1 year. Everyone had the same birthday! Not only that, but babies were said to already be 1 year old at birth. Yes, I know what you’re thinking, “So what if a baby is born on December 31st?”. Well you’re right. That means that on January 1st, the very next day, that particular baby would be 2 years old! So in addition to its many traditions, the New Year also served as a giant birthday party for the whole nation. As many people use their birthday as a time for reflection on another year passing in their life, this collective birthday tradition tied in very well with the festive and reflective spirit of the Japanese New Year– although because of all the drinking associated with the New Year in Japan, the next day I’m sure the biggest reflection of all was “I wish I wasn’t so hungover…”

Well that just about sums it up for the Japanese New Year. In my next post, I will highlight features and customs of the Setsubun festival. See you then!