Setsubun, the Japanese celebration marking the end of winter, is a fascinating blend of tradition and superstition. This annual observance is a time to chase away evil spirits and usher in good luck for the new year. In 2024, Setsubun celebrations take place on February 3.
The Origins of Setsubun
Setsubun, meaning "seasonal division," has been a Japanese tradition for centuries. Its roots lie in ancient China, where the practice of tsuina, or warding off evil spirits, was prevalent. The tradition made its way to Japan with Buddhism, taking root in the Heian Era (794–1185). Along with Setsubun activities came oni, fearsome ogres featured in Chinese and Japanese folklore. Oni are usually depicted as having red or blue skin, horns, and tusks.
However, Setsubun's defining tradition of bean throwing only gained popularity in the Muromachi Era (1336–1573). It was inspired by a legend of a monk surviving a demonic encounter by blinding the creature with roasted beans.
Fun fact: The word for "bean" in Japanese, "mame," can be written as 'devil's eye' (魔目).
How to Celebrate Setsubun
Throwing Lucky Beans
The highlight of Setsubun is reenacting the story of the monk who shooed away demons. Major shrines and temples across Japan will host Setsubun festivals with events and activities, and some locations even feature sumo wrestlers, celebrities and kabuki actors throwing the lucky beans to spread good luck. In Tokyo, the biggest Setsubun festival is held at Senso-ji in Asakusa. Before the pandemic, about 100,000 people attended the celebrations!
You can also chase demons away from the comfort of your home. People open doors, throwing beans at any potential demons waiting to come in, shouting "oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi" ("demons out, fortune in") and race to slam the doors shut before the demons recover from the sudden assault.
Another tradition is eating the number of beans corrections to your age to ward off sickness for the upcoming year. An even older tradition involves tying sprigs of holly and dried sardine heads near gateways to repel evil spirits that supposedly detest the smell and the sharp thorns.
Like many Japanese holidays, there's a special food associated with Setsubun: ehomaki, an uncut makizushi roll. Makizushi is a style of sushi where the ingredients are rolled into a tight rice cylinder, covered in a sheet of seaweed, and sliced.
Ehomaki are packed with seven ingredients, one for each of the Seven Lucky Gods. Traditionally, you're supposed to eat the entire roll with your eyes shut for maximum luck. Common ehomaki ingredients include freshwater or saltwater eel, egg, shrimp, cucumber, and shiitake mushrooms.
The "eho" in ehomaki refers to a "lucky direction," so ehomaki is consumed while facing the direction deemed most auspicious for the year. Prepare your chopsticks and compass — this year's lucky direction is east-northeast!
Buying Setsubun Sets
Skip the hassle (and crowds) and grab a Setsubun set from a supermarket or convenience store. These charming little boxes contain roasted soybeans and a demon mask, perfect for a mini-mamemaki at home. Don't forget to pick up a cup of amazake, a sweet, non-alcoholic drink, and a pre-made ehomaki that's the perfect winter comfort. Call it self-care or spring cleaning. Both are true.
Extra Tips For Enjoying Setsubun
If you're celebrating Setsubun and are heading for the shrine or temple, keep these tips in mind:
- Respect cultural traditions and rules, and dress modestly when visiting shrines and temples.
- Be mindful of others when throwing beans, especially in crowded spaces.
- Be on time; the bean-throwing at festivals only lasts a minute or two.
- Remember to eat your ehomaki in the right direction!
Making Your Own Ehomaki
Infuse your ehomaki with extra luck by making it yourself, ensuring it's stuffed with healthy and lucky ingredients. This authentic Japanese sushi-making Class in Kyoto is one place where you can learn the basics of rolled sushi. Plus, there's an added layer of authenticity here, as Kansai is said to be the birthplace of ehomaki.
Alternatively, you can sign up for a sushi-making class at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Tokyo. Participants can anticipate a premium and immersive experience beyond the ordinary. The emphasis on precision, flavor, and presentation reflects the exacting standards of the restaurant's Michelin-starred reputation.
A budget-friendly option in the capital is this maki sushi class led by expert instructors from the oldest cooking school in Japan. This experience is not just about creating delicious food; it also includes discussions on the cultural significance of maki sushi, adding an enriching layer to a tasty adventure.
More than just a change in the calendar, Setsubun is a tradition of chasing away misfortune and welcoming a year brimming with good luck. As you throw beans, savor ehomaki, or join in the shrine festivities, remember the spirit of Setsubun: embrace the new year, chase away negativity, and welcome good fortune with open arms (and a full stomach).