Setsubun: Japan’s Magic Bean Festival

One of the first festivals most students of Japanese culture learn about it Setsubun. Originating as purity festivals in the Heian Period, Setsubun is now primarily a children’s festivals, where a parent dresses up in ogre masks as the family throws dried beans at them. But how did all of this start? How did we go from purity festival to–throwing beans?

large ehou-maki and red oni mask for setsubun
ehou-maki, oni mask, and beans for setsubun

The History of Setsubun

 Traditionally in Japan, the following day of the first day of a new season was called Sestubun [節分]. Many considered the “Setsubun” of the first day of spring, known as Risshun [立春], to be most important of the four seasons, since spring is first season of the New Year. Due to the cultural emphasis placed on the start of the year, the word Setsubun has come to exclusively mean the Setsubun of Risshun.

 In the Heian Period, nobles and commoners alike thought that many misfortunes were completely out of their control. Anything from typhoons to headaches were the result of nasty Oni (ogres)! It was therefore very important to try and rid oneself of these pesky Oni to prevent misfortune in the New Year. 

Tsuina and Mame-maki

The courts of the Imperial Palace in Kyoto held festivals for themselves around Risshun called tsuina [追儺]. During the tsuina, some participants would dress up as Oni while others would pretend to shoot them with fake arrows. This process thereby symbolically killed off any Oni that might actually be following them around.

During the Muromachi Period, people gradually stopped shooting arrows, and started throwing beans. The practice of throwing beans on Setsubun became known as mame-maki, and is one of the most iconic parts of Setsubun. Why the transition from arrows to beans took place is not completely clear. One the most likely rreasons for the transition most likely because beans are very important grain in Japanese culture. Another reason is that if the kanji for magic [魔] and the kanji for destroy [滅] are combined, they are read as mame. Furthermore, roasted beans were specifically used because the verb for roast, iru [煎る], sounded exactly the same as an old Japanese verb meaning to shooting an arrow iru [射る].

Modern Setsubun

Though lots of shrines and temples host mame-maki festivals on Setsubun, Japanese families usually conduct the festivities in their own home. One member of the family, typically the father, will put on an oni mask while the rest of family will throw beans at him. As they throw the beans, they will yell; “Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi!” literally meaning “ogres [get] out, happiness [come] in!” Some of the beans are reserved for eating, specifically the number of you age plus one, for good luck. 

green setsubun oni maski
Setsubun Oni mask

In ancient China, the twelve animals of the zodiac were assigned to the cardinal directions, and the direction known as the Ox Tiger (Northeast) was also known as kimon [鬼門] or “ogre gate”. This is why Oni have horns and tiger skin loin cloths! In Japan, these animal directions also dictated the hours of the day. Traditionally mame-maki was at 2 o’clock in the morning because that was the Ox-Tiger hour, when Oni were most prolific.

Setsubun Food

Ehou-maki

A recent Setsubun tradition is eating Ehou-maki [恵方巻]. The only difference between a futo-maki and an ehou-maki, is how you eat them. You should eat your ehou-maki uncut, in silence, while facing a specific direction. The direction changes year to year, but it is usually somewhere on the packaging. Take a look and check your bag before you dig in, so you know which direction to face.

Interestingly, this custom started during the 1970’s when several seaweed companies in Osaka were searching for a method to boost sales of nori. For the first few years, this tactic enjoyed modest success, but it wasn’t until the new convenience store chain Seven Eleven, also started selling ehou-maki during Setsubun that things took off. Seven Eleven’s success spurred its competitors to start selling ehou-maki too. Ehou-maki are now a booming industry every year and sold just about everywhere. Some cake shops even sell roll cakes that look like ehou-maki!

vendor selling ehou-maki for setsubun
Ehou-maki sold during Setsubun

Iwashi

In the Kansai region, there is another popular Setsubun food: iwashi. Unlike futo-maki, eating iwashi [鰯] is very traditional in Osaka and Kyoto, dating as far back as the Heian Period. It is believed that Oni are repulsed by smelly things, eating iwashi would ward them off. Personally, I wouldn’t say iwashi “stink”, but they are an oily fish, and the smell of them can linger even after eating them.

small grilled fish on a blue plate
Grilled iwashi

After eating the iwashi, the heads removed and skewered on holly twigs. People then placed these twigs near the gates of peoples homes on the night of Setsubun. Fittingly, this is called hiiragi-iwashi and though this practice was once commonplace, its rather hard to find today. To be honest, this is a practice that I have only heard about, but never seen. 

grilled fish head on a spring of holly near a persons home
Hiiragi-iwashi. So welcoming.

Yakuyoke Manju, A Local Favorite

A very popular treat in the Abiko area of Osaka during Setsubun is yakuyoke manju. These manju are sold at several stores on the way to Abiko Kannon-ji from the Midosuji Abiko Station.

crowded store during setsubun in Japan
Lines for yakuyoke manju
brown and white setsubun special manju called yakuyoke manju
yakuyoke manju

The white maju are flavored with sake, and the brown ones are flavored with brown sugar. Each manju is 110 yen.

Abiko-Kannon-Ji Setsubun Festival

entrance of abiko-kannon-ji
Abiko-Kannon-ji

A popular place visit in Osaka to visit during Setsubun is Abiko-Kannon-ji [あびこ観音寺] in Osaka city. You can get to this temple from Abiko station on the Midosuji Line or from the Abiko-cho Station on the JR Hanwa Line. You can get to Abiko Kannon-ji using the Hankai or Nankai Koya Line, but it is a bit far.

Abiko-Kannon-ji is famous for yakuyoke, or purification. The temple has a long Setsubun festival, lasting from February 1st though the 7th with most visitors coming on the 3rd. Crowds completely pack the temple during Setsubun and the days leading up to it! I have heard that on the weekends it can take as much as two hours just to get in the temple grounds! This is ironic because I’ve been there on a regular day and I must say that the only crowd you will encounter will be the flocks of pigeons. (Really, there are a lot of pigeons.)

empty buddhsit temple filled with pigeons
Abiko Kannon-ji, average day
setsubun crowds a temple in japan
Abiko Kannon-ji, Setsubun Festival

Rituals

Sadly, there is no mame-maki festival at Abiko Kannon-ji, instead, the monks of Abiko Kannon-ji perform special purification rituals. For a fee, the monks will purge the oni looming around a personThe cost of the purification ritual is also pretty steep considering, as the starting price is 10,000 yen and quickly goes up from there. The higher cost ritual includes a set of charms as well and the monks, blowing on shell horns and praying for you. Reservations are also necessary if you want to have the ritual performed. However, it did seem possible to go to the temple and wait in line, but the wait seemed awful. 

I believe the small sword vanquishes any nasty oni floating around you?

 

Between Christmas, Oshogatsu, Tooka Ebisu, and Setsubun, the beginning and end of year is certainly an extremely busy time of year in Japan! But with the year properly welcomed, we can start moving into spring!

Coming next time,
The first kaiten (conveyor belt) sushi restaurant in Japan!

The adventures continue…

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