During my first months in Japan, I lived in a sharehouse in Nagoya. In early February, one of my roommates, a sushi chef, invited us all to a Setsubun party at home. Back then, I had never heard of vacations, and it seemed like a cool and fun thing to do together. Now, it has become one of my favorite quirky Japanese traditions.
Setsubun means “seasonal division”. It is celebrated on the eve of spring because it falls according to the old Japanese calendar. The holidays are starting haru matsuri, the Spring Festival, and usually falls on February 3. However, in 2021, it will be February 2 for the first time in over a century.
Since Setsubun occurs just before the Lunar New Year, it was traditionally considered to be a kind of New Year’s Eve. The rituals associated with it all have to do with cleansing and purification, and casting out demons and bad luck. to welcome good fortune for the coming year.
You can see these rituals taking place at various temples and shrines across Japan, with one of the biggest events taking place at Senso-ji Temple in the Asakusa district of Tokyo.
In Shimokitazawa in western Tokyo, you can even catch a parade, with revelers dressed as mountain priests or tengu, a sort of mischievous mountain demon. These events have unfortunately been canceled for 2021.
However, Setsubun was initially observed in detached houses to invite good luck for the coming year. As Tokyo will continue to be in a state of emergency until February, a Setsubun celebration at home seems like the right thing to do.
To organize your own DIY Setsubun party, you need a few items to be able to observe all the rituals.
First of all, the traditional food eaten in Setsubun is ehomaki, a long roll of uncut sushi. As the holidays approach, you can find these long sushi at any grocery store and conbini, but you can also make it yourself.
Do it to your own style and taste
Ehomaki should include seven ingredients, symbolizing the seven Japanese gods of fortune. But as for what goes inside, you can choose and customize it however you see fit! In addition to sushi rice and nori, choose from seafood like salmon, tuna or shrimp, and vegetables like avocado, cucumber, carrots, all cut into long strips. Place your nori sheet (dried seaweed sheets) on a sushi mat and spread a thin layer of rice on it. Then place the seven ingredients you chose inside and roll them up neatly!
Once you’ve prepared (or bought) your long sushi roll, you can eat this delicious creation.
But wait, there is also a special ritual attached to this. In order to bring good luck, ehomaki should be eaten all at once, in complete silence, facing the auspicious direction of the year.
It might sound easy, but due to the length of the sushi roll, it’s actually quite difficult. This practice has also become something of a fad on the internet, with many people recording themselves doing it and uploading the videos to social media. So once you’ve figured out which direction to face: south-southeast for 2021, set up your phones and cameras and start eating!
Believe me, it will take longer than you think. But the good fortune you take with you will be worth it.
Next, Setsubun’s most important custom is mamemaki, a household cleansing ritual that involves throwing in roasted soybeans, a practice that originated in China. However, it shouldn’t be old beans, but fukumame, “lucky beans,” available in most grocery stores in Japan in January.
To clear your space and drive out the demons, first get inside and throw the beans out the door shouting “Oni wa soto!” (“Demons out!”). Then, to welcome good fortune, go outside and throw more beans inside the house shouting “Fuku wa uchi!” (” Good luck ! “). You should also eat some of these beans inside.
Who will play the oni?
Finally, to enhance your Setsubun celebration, have a member of your party replace the oni, the demon you are casting out. Most stores selling fukumame also sell paper or plastic masks, which you can give your “oni” to wear when they stand in the doorway and get bombarded with beans.
Legends dictate that the oni actor should be the oldest male member of the household, or a man with the same Chinese zodiac sign from that year (someone born in the Year of the Ox for 2021). But if your group lacks someone of this description, any volunteer should do!
Japan has so many weird and wonderful vacations to watch throughout the year that make living here such a special experience. This year, try something different and have your own DIY Setsubun festival at home!
Author: Mo Stone