During my first few months in Japan, I was living in a sharehouse in Nagoya. In early February one of my housemates, a sushi chef, invited all of us to partake in a Setsubun celebration at home. At the time, I had never heard of the holiday, and it seemed like a cool, fun thing to do together. Now it has become one of my favorite off-beat Japanese traditions.
Setsubun means “seasonal division.” It is celebrated the day before spring as it falls according to the old Japanese calendar. The holiday kicks off haru matsuri, the spring festival, and usually falls on February 3rd. However, in 2021, it will be on February 2nd for the first time in over a century.
Since Setsubun occurs just before the Lunar New Year, it was traditionally thought of as a sort of New Year’s Eve. The rituals associated with it all have to do with cleansing and purification, and driving away demons and bad luck to welcome in good fortune for the coming year.
You can see these rituals taking place at various temples and shrines around Japan, with one of the biggest events being held at Senso-ji Temple in Tokyo’s Asakusa neighborhood.
In Shimokitazawa in West Tokyo, you can even watch a parade, complete with revelers dressed as mountain priests or tengu, a kind of mischievous mountain demon. These events have unfortunately been canceled for 2021.
However, Setsubun was originally observed in individual homes to invite in good luck for the coming year. As Tokyo will continue to be under a state of emergency until through February, an at-home Setsubun celebration seems just the thing to do.
To have your own DIY Setsubun celebration, there are a few items you need so that you are able to observe all of the rituals.
First, the traditional food eaten at Setsubun is ehomaki, a long, uncut sushi roll. As the holiday draws near, you can find these long sushis at every grocery store and conbini, but you can also make your own.
Make It to Your Own Style and Taste
Ehomaki should include seven ingredients, symbolizing the Japanese seven gods of fortune. But as to what goes inside, you can choose and customize it however you wish! Along with sushi rice and nori, choose from seafood such as salmon, tuna, or prawns, and veggies like avocado, cucumber, carrots, all cut into long strips. Lay your sheet of nori (dried sheets of seaweed) on a sushi mat and spread a thin, even layer of rice on top. Then place your chosen seven ingredients inside and carefully roll it up!
Once you’ve made (or bought) your long sushi roll, you get to eat this delicious creation.
But wait, there’s a special ritual attached to this too. In order to bring good luck, the ehomaki should be eaten in one sitting, in complete silence, while facing that year’s auspicious direction.
This may sound easy, but due to the length of the sushi roll, it’s actually quite challenging. This practice has become something of an internet fad as well, with lots of people recording themselves doing it and uploading the videos to social media. So after you’ve figured out which direction to faceーsouth-southeast for 2021 - set up your phones and cameras and start eating!
Trust me, it will take longer than you think. But the good fortune you will take away will be absolutely worth it.
Next, the most important custom of Setsubun is the mamemaki, a ritual to purify the home that involves throwing roasted soybeans, a practice that originated in China. These shouldn’t be any old beans however, but fukumame, “luck beans,” available at most grocery stores throughout Japan during January.
To cleanse your space and chase away demons, first stand inside, and throw the beans out the door, yelling “Oni wa soto!” (“Demons out!”). Then, to welcome good fortune in, go outside and throw more beans inside the house, yelling “Fuku wa uchi!” (“Luck in!”). You should also eat some of these inside beans as well.
Who Will Play the Oni?
Finally, to level up your Setsubun celebration, have a member of your party stand in for the oni, the demon you are chasing away. Most stores selling fukumame will also sell paper or plastic masks, which you can give to your “oni” to wear as they stand in the doorway and get pelted with beans.
Legends dictate that the oni actor should be the most senior male member of the household, or a male with the same Chinese zodiac sign of that year (someone born in the year of the ox for 2021). But if your party lacks someone of this description, any willing volunteer should do!
Japan has so many weird and wonderful holidays to observe throughout the year, which make living here such a special experience. This year, try something different, and have your own DIY Setsubun fest at home!
Author: Mo Stone