Every year, the day before the start of spring is a celebrated all across Japan. While America is fooling around with some groundhog, we here embrace Setsubun. The purpose of this wonderful event is to drive away the demons of last year, and also to ward off those that may try to come in the following year. This time around was my third Setsubun, and I was able to share in the festivities with Soeng.
There are a number of different traditions that the Japanese do for this event. The first one is the eating of the ehomaki, which is a large sushi roll. In addition to the cucumber, egg and carrot, there are also sardines inside. Like garlic to Dracula, it is said that sardines are hated by demons and can be used to drive them away.
The ehomaki is traditionally eaten in total silence by the person whose zodiac year it is. While chowing down, they must face the compass direction of this year’s zodiac animal (this year’s snake was to the South Southeast) and also think of a blessing. Upon completion of the entire roll, they laugh out loud. It was neither of our animal years, but Soeng and I each bought one. She had just made a fantastic meal, so neither of us were so inclined to spoil our appetites though. I instead finished it on the the way to school the next day though. They are just a little bit sweet and very filling, so it made a great breakfast.
Another important tradition is to eat the same number of roasted soybeans as your current age. In my case that was 25, but there are also some regions of Japan where tradition dictates eating an extra one for good measure. Unfortunately Soeng and I procrastinated heavily on the procurement of these soybeans and were left having to eat peanuts instead. These are widely used across the country as a viable alternative, but we were striving for some degree of authenticity. The leftover peanuts are at least far more delicious than the soybeans are.
Finally it was time for the what I would call the grand finale of Setsubun. Here the head of the household (me) dons a demon mask and gets ready for the mamemaki gauntlet. For mamemaki, the other family members chant ‘oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi’ (鬼は外福は内) which translates to ”demon outside, fortune inside” As they do this, they pelt the demon with
soybeans peanuts. This goes on in each room of the house before finally they are cast out the front door, which is then slammed to symbolically shut the demons away.
There are a few variations to this tradition across Japan, but we were able to embrace the bulk of it. Most families take part in this celebration, I assume because it is just something fun to do. There are large gatherings at some of the major shrines as well that are televised and often feature celebrities. The two of us enjoyed eating our leftover peanuts and were satisfied with our foray into Japanese culture. Setsubun is quite a unique tradition that I hope to celebrate wherever I might be living.