Friday 2 February 2018

Throwing Beans and Driving off Demons: Setsubun

Setsubun (節分), better known as "bean-throwing day" is a popular festival held the day before the beginning of spring (Risshun=立春) in the old lunar calendar named because it marks the division (分) between seasons (節). This year, Setsubun is on February 3rd with Risshun on February 4th. At this time of the year, supermarkets feature displays selling pan-roasted beans (iri-mame =煎り豆), specifically soybeans (daizu = 大豆) - labelled as "lucky beans" or fuku-mame (福豆) - together with ogre or demon masks (oni no men = 鬼の面).

Supermarket flyer promoting Setsubun
The idea is to throw beans (mame-maki=豆撒き) at someone wearing the ogre mask while chanting "Out with Demons! In with Fortune!" (oni wa soto! fuku wa uchi! =鬼は外!福は内!). The beans, which demons supposedly hate, will drive out evil, purify the home, and bring good fortune. Additionally, eating the same number of beans as your age is said to bring good health. In a twist on the regular bean-throwing custom, temples and shrines around Japan often hold Setsubun festivals (節分祭) where the priests - or at famous shrines a celebrity, especially a sumo wrestler - throw beans and other prizes/gifts to the crowd who excitedly try to catch them for luck. See here for a video of the Setsubun festival at Sensoji Temple in Asakusa which attracts crowds of over 100,000 annually. 

Fuku-mame are advertised as rich in protein (tanpakushitsu =たんぱく質) and dietary fibre (shokumotsu sen'i=食物繊維) but in actual fact are not particularly tasty. Fortunately, there is a far more delicious snack popularly sold and eaten on Setsubun - a special giant sushi/meat/vegetable roll known as ehō-maki (恵方巻き) stuffed full of seven ingredients (after the Seven Deities of Good Fortune or shichi fuku jin =七福神). Traditionally, you are supposed to eat these in silence while facing a particular "lucky" or favourable direction (hōgaku =方角) all the while making a wish for the year. Interestingly, this direction, like the date itself, changes ever year; this year it is apparently SSE (in comparison, 2015 was WSW and 2016 SSE!). The silence thing never seems to last long in our household but we do invariably have ehō-maki from the supermarket or convenience store for dinner on Setsubun night. As a rather sad aside, stores tend to over stock ehōmaki and afterwards these are thrown out and end up as pig feed, one example of the giant food waste problem in Japan. Mottainai!
A selection of special ehō-maki rolls lined up in a local convenience store for Setsubun
The special giant sushi/meat/vegetable roll known as ehō-maki (恵方巻き) on sale in a 7-11 store