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Setsubun 節分

April 19, 2012

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.

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