Today is Setsubun — the separating of the seasons — celebrated every February 3rd in Japan. Though the New Year is now celebrated on January 1st like in the West, Setsubun remains the “official” end of winter in Japan, and retains its celebratory feeling from the old Chinese lunisolar calendar. It’s sort of like New Year’s Eve — and coincidentally today is the Chinese New Year.
Even though we’ve still got about 3 feet of snow on the ground, today was warm and sunny compared to last week. Maybe spring is on its way after all?
The holiday is celebrated in a few ways: the first is by eating a huge roll of sushi. This is usually done in one sitting, and nobody speaks until their roll is all eaten up. That can be difficult if you have a small stomach like me. The second, and more famous celebration is known as mamemaki, or bean-throwing. With mamemaki, one person puts on an oni mask and gnarls around outside like a demon while the family members throw roasted soybeans (“lucky beans”) at them and shout, “Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!” which means “Oni (i.e. bad things) go away! Good luck come in!”
Shrines and temples usually have spring festivals at this time, and it is common to hand out sacks of lucky beans to all shrine-goers in a big frenzy (which if you didn’t know better you’d think they were throwing out fistfuls of cash, judging by the crowds). Lucky beans are delicious, by the way.
These spring festivals also often have musical and dance performances, fortune telling, lotteries, and all sorts of crazy fun stuff. A few years ago I got to see one of the really big Setsubun festivals in Kyoto.
So don’t forget to wish people a happy Setsubun today, and then throw beans at them and shout, “Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!”