On February 3rd*, people all across Japan celebrate the arrival of spring! Unlike America, where we wait for the wisdom of the groundhog, February 3rd is always the day before the start of spring. This day is called Setsubun, which literally translates to “seasonal divide,” and is a day to chase away evil spirits and ward off bad luck. Setsubun celebrations of all sizes are sure to be found at temples and shrines wherever you may be in Japan, from small, local celebrations to big parades; I was lucky enough to spend this holiday with my host family.
We spent the afternoon at our local shrine with a majority of the community, to attend a special ceremony held inside the shrine, which was really cool because I didn’t think I’d ever get to go inside of this shrine. During the ceremony, the shrine priest, or kannushi, prayed to the god of the shrine, reading off addresses of all the people in attendance, asking him to bless and protect those homes and the people within them. Of course, there were many people attending so we had to stand in line while another group participated in the ceremony. While we were waiting there was a mother holding her baby standing behind us who was cooing and trying to grab my hair because she’d never seen hair like mine and liked the red tints in my dark brown hair, much different from her mother’s jet black hair.
Once the ceremony was over, our group was led out the back entrance of the shrine by a shrine maiden, or miko, to a small fenced-in garden area where they had three stands set up. The first had shrine priests handing out handfuls of roasted soybeans called fortune beans (fuku mame) to throw at the bad spirits at the next station. The beans left our hands smelling like kinako, a slightly sweet roasted soybean powder with a flavor similar to peanut butter. At the third station, the shrine maidens were giving out warm amazake, a non-alcoholic sweet drink made from fermented rice that is good for digestion (healthy dessert drink, anyone?). It was delicious and I highly recommend you try it if the opportunity ever presents itself. Hot amazake is popular in the cold months, but in the summer you can find it cold, too. After we exited the garden, in front of the shrine there was a lottery and my host sister won a notebook (we took it as a good sign towards her studies).
Even after we returned home, the celebration continued. For dinner, we had ehou maki sushi, a sushi roll that is eaten whole because it is considered lucky and cutting it will shorten your luck. It’s made with seven ingredients, because seven is a lucky number in Japan. We made our own sushi rolls, which was a lot of fun, but also a bit difficult because of all the stuff inside of it (I had some help from my host mom). We filled ours with cooked egg, cucumber, mushroom, eel, denbu, carrots, and sashimi. Each year there is a certain direction to face while eating your ehou maki sushi, which you also do for luck. You’re also supposed to eat your roll in silence, but my host family made it through the first bite before we started talking again.
To end our night of celebration, we all went out to the genkan and threw dried soybeans at my host mom while she wore a demon mask, as one does on Setsubun, and something I thought I’d never be doing as a host student. So, out with the demons and in with good luck!
Happy Spring, Everybody!
*February 3rd is the official holiday, but you can find local celebrations happening on the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th, and it is not a national holiday.
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<p class="MsoBodyText" style="margin-top:2.35pt; margin-right:9.65pt; margin-bottom:.0001pt; margin-left:5.0pt"><span style="line-height:115%">I grew up in a small farm town but was bitten by the travel-bug shortly after leaving for undergrad. I have a sweet tooth the size of Texas, and can often be found searching for the best treats life has to offer.</span></p>