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February 3, 2012

Japanese Customs: Setsubun

Setsubun literally means "seasonal division" and used to refer to the day prior to the first day of spring (risshun), summer (rikka)  autumn (risshu) and winter (ritto) in the lunar calendar. Today, however, it is only used for the festival held on the day prior to risshun, because this is the most important as it marks a new start. In that respect, it is comparable to New Year's Eve - as a kind of "Spring's Eve." It falls on either February 2, 3 or 4 in the solar calendar (this year Feb. 3).

Rituals on Setsubun have to do with chasing out evil influences as a sort of spiritual or ritual house cleaning before the start of Spring.  These are the rituals:
  • Tsuina or oni-yarai. Originally held on New Year's Eve and introduced from Tang-China, this is an exorcism rite. Participants hold bows and clubs made from peach wood and symbolically chase away figures wearing demon masks.
  • Mame-maki. Bean-scattering ceremony. The scattering of roasted soy beans to expel evil spirits began in the 15-16th centuries and in popular folklore became linked with the above Tsuina ceremony. Participants shout "Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!" ("Out with the demons and in with good luck"). The bean scattering is done by a toshi otoko, a male family member born in the same Zodiac year (nowadays, happily, toshi onna also can take part). 
  • Yaikagashi. Heads of sardines are struck on holly branches and hung over doorways to drive out the demons. 
  • See here for the modern custom of eating Ehomaki, "Lucky Direction Sushi Rolls."

Many shrines and temples hold Setsubun events. Often famous persons from TV, show business or sports (sumo!) will take part, and in Kyoto there are bean-throwing maiko. Here are the major ones:
  • In Tokyo: Asakusa Kannon, Kanda Myojin and Hie Jinja. 
  • In Kyoto: Mibudera (Setsubun Kyogen performances), Rokuharamitsuji (demon chase and bean throwing), Yasaka Jinja (bean throwing by maiko), Yoshida Jinja (demon chase and fire festival), Shogoin (mamemaki and demons) and Rozanji (a very theatrical demon chase with a thousand-year history).   
  • In Nara: Horyuji (Shuni-e ceremony in the Saiendo, red, black and blue oni are driven away by Taishakuten), Gangoji Gokurakubo (firewalking), Kofukuji (Bishamonten chasing demons at Tokondo).
[Check all dates and times in advance, as Setsubun dates vary per year. Some events are in the evening]