Warning: all of the following information about Setsubun is a product of things I’ve been told by my coworkers on the day of, as well as whatever I can remember from the culture classes I took in college. I have not done any recent independent research into Setsubun other than by experiencing it first-hand just this year in Japan. If I’m wrong about any of these attempted facts, I’m sorry. I tried (without having to do any extra work).
Setsubun is a festival/holiday signifying the changing of seasons from winter to spring. The “setsu” in Setsubun comes from the Japanese word “kisetsu” meaning “season”. Setsubun says goodbye to winter and welcomes in spring, as in the seasons, but also as in the cleansing of the spirit of the household by chasing out the demons and welcoming in luck and happiness in spring.
Setsubun traditions include bean-throwing, bean-eating, a special type of sushi role with a specific ritual in how to eat it, and a form of trick-or-treating for Japanese kids that made me jealous in comparison to my now EXTREMELY meager Halloween trick-or-treating experiences growing up.
Let’s start off with the bean-throwing and eating. There are 2 variations that I am now aware of for this Setsubun tradition:
The one I learned about in college was that an adult (typically male I believe) member of the household dresses up as an oni (demon) and comes into the house. Everyone else in the house must throw beans at the oni and chant “Oni wa soto. Fuku wa uchi.” until the oni-actor leaves. The chant means “Demons out. Luck in.” Everyone must then gather up and eat as many beans as their age, +1 to bring luck into their lives. I think I remember the +1 bean being because you wanted to invite more years to come and add onto your life, and thus the number of beans you’ll have to eat the next year when Setsubun comes around again.
The variation that I experienced here did not involve someone dressing up as the oni to chase out. Instead, you simply threw a handful of beans outside the front door chanting “Oni wa soto.” and then stepped across the threshold and threw another handful of beans into the house chanting “Fuku wa uchi.” In this case the parts of the chant have the same meaning as previously mentioned. The tradition of the number of beans eaten is also the same, although we didn’t gather beans that were thrown to eat. We just ate from the remaining beans that didn’t get thrown at all.
The special sushi roll for Setsubun is really cool, and also involves a ritual that is designed to bring you luck. This sushi roll is called Ehomaki. From what I remember learning in college, Ehomaki has 8 ingredients that already are special and considered a form of lucky combination I believe. The ritual of eating Ehomaki can be a little bit strange and can be challenging though. You must eat the whole Ehomaki roll (it is not sliced into bite-sized pieces like regular sushi rolls are) while standing, facing the lucking direction for that year/season/I’m-not-sure-what-time-reference, in complete silence. The sound of chewing does not count against your silence requirement though… Luckily… (Sorry. This has so far been very educational and stuff. The pun made me do it…) The ritual I believe is designed this way so that as you eat the Ehomaki, you are bringing in luck to your body and spirit, and that speaking during this ritual would cause you to expel the luck from you instead. Thus, the silence. It can be surprisingly difficult at times to keep in the awkward giggles though. Ehomaki is a hefty sushi roll, and not the easiest undertaking when I also believe you have to wait until you’ve finished eating the Ehomaki to take any drinks or anything.
And then there’s the Japanese trick-or-treating. These kids had some seriously impressively large bags filled with little snacks and things from their neighbors. It’s not quite the intense sugar-rush candy haul of the American Halloween trick-or-treater, but I think I seriously prefer this way of things. I was very envious of these kids and their experiences with growing up with this tradition. Just wow. Lots of snacks.
It was so much fun hanging out with some friends, experiencing Setsubun together actually IN Japan. It took on so much more meaning to me than when a friend and I would try to scramble together Ehomaki ourselves the cheap college-kid-way. That was definitely fun, and an experience that I would absolutely do again, but it just a completely different experience in Japan.
This turned out to be a lot more educational than I expected when I first started typing… I think you got a good idea of what I experienced today… Cool. Sorry I didn’t take any pictures. Not quite sure what I would have taken pictures of anyway… Not going to just take pictures of random kids receiving treats… And beans are beans (I believe they were roasted soy beans?) And I’m sure you can look up Ehomaki yourself if you’d like, for both pictures, and a list of the traditional ingredients in it.
I hope you had a good Setsubun (even if you had no idea it was on Feb. 3rd, or did anything about it)!