Japan has a number of traditional annual events that include famous ones such as Hinamatsuri (ひな祭り) in March and Tanabata (七夕) in July. They have unique origins and meanings, and are carried out in unique, traditional ways nationwide throughout the year. Setsubun (節分) is one of these traditional Japanese events. Setsubun involves a lot of bean eating and bean throwing to ward off evil spirits that bring disaster, misfortune and bad health and marks the end of winter. It is celebrated at home and there are some famous public events at temples that are fun to visit. Although the event still might be unfamiliar to many international tourists, learning about it will help you understand Japanese tradition more deeply and enjoy the event. Here we’ll explain the meaning and the celebrations.
The brief history of Setsubun
In general, it is believed that Setsubun has its origin in China. It was introduced to Japan during the Heian Period (794-1185), as it appeared in historical records and documents dating back to that time. During the Muromachi Period(1336-1573), they started to throw beans to drive away demons that represent the evil spirits who will bring all the disasters and tragic events. This remains one of the biggest parts of the event even today. As a staple food that was essential for them to survive, beans were believed to have sacred power along with rice, which could get rid of evil spirits. The Japanese word for beans is pronounced as mame (豆) and sounds similar to the word for demon eyes (mame, 魔目) and because of that throwing beans has a similar sound to destroying demons: mametsu, 魔滅).
The word Setsubun (節分) literally means the division of two seasons: Winter and Spring. According to the lunar calendar that was once officially used in Japan, Setsubun refers to the close of winter, which also celebrates the arrival of spring called Risshun (立春). It may sound confusing as February is still cold and generally considered as a part of winter today. It is said after Risshun, the cold weather will get milder.
One of the features that you should remember about Setsubun is that the date of the event is not fixed. It may change depending on Risshun, which also has a flexible date between February 2nd to 4th. It’s been on February 3rd in the last 30 years but in 2021, it will be on February 2nd and it will be so once every 4 years.
Things to do on Setsubun
Mamemaki (豆まき) is the most general custom that is exclusively carried out on Setsubun. Prepare roasted soybeans, and throw them away around your house. It is said best to start off with the room that is located the farthest from the entrance. Keep windows open as you throw the beans so that evil spirits can can leave. Another custom, especially for small children, is throwing beans at a family member who is dressed the demon.
We usually say “Oni wa Soto, Fuku wa Uchi!” (鬼は外、福は内！) as we scatter beans around house or throw them at the demons. It means “Demons out, fortune in!” in English. In addition, many people will eat the same number of roasted beans as their age, this is said to bring good health.
Many shrines and temples also hold bean throwing ceremonies, where the priest throws beans, chocolate, money and other prizes into the crow. At popular temples, these events are joined by Japanese celebrities.
Ehomaki is a unique type of sushi roll that is generally eaten only on Setsubun. It can be translated as Fortune Sushi Roll in English, and relatively long and big compared to the ordinary Sushi rolls that you can find at sushi restaurants. In general, it is considered good to use seven ingredients such as tuna and egg for Ehomaki as the number is often associated with “Lucky”. It also comes from the fact that we have 7 famous gods of fortune called Shichifukujin (七福神) in Japan!
When you eat Ehomaki, you need to face the direction that is believed to bring you good fortune during the year. Make sure to check the direction beforehand as it changes every year. It is also important to make a wish with your eyes closed while eating Ehomaki. People eat the entire roll at one time without stopping (or giving up).
Popular Setsubun events that you shouldn’t miss!
Famous temples hold exciting Setsubun events that draw numerous visitors every year. Joining these events allows you to experience traditional Setsubun custom while exploring incredible historical spots. Before making your way to the events, stop by the supermarket or konbini and buy a setsubun set which consists of roasted beans and a demon mask, and learn the tantra Oni wa Soto, Fuku wa Uchi. Here are two popular temples in the Kanto region that are famous for large-scale Setsubun events!
Sensoji / Tokyo (浅草寺/東京)
Sensoji, the oldest Buddhist temple in Tokyo, attracts crowds with the popular Setsubun event every year. Join the exciting bean-throwing event participated by famous celebrities, or enjoy shopping at the lively shopping street called Nakamise-dori! One of the most famous setsubun rituals of Sensoji is the seven lucky gods dance called Fukuju-no-Mai dance, followed by the bean throwing.
▶Related article: The secret of Sensoji: The Oldest Buddhist Temple
Naritasan Shinshoji/ Chiba (成田山新勝寺/東京)
If the Narita International Airport is the main gateway to start or finish your trip in Japan, pay a visit to Naritasan Shinshoji! It takes only 30 min from the Narita International airport by train to reach the sacred temple which attracts countless numbers of both domestic and foreign visitors.
The setsubun event at Naritasan attracts some 40,000 visitors each year. This event too is visited by many celebrities, including sumo wrestlers and kabuki actors, who together throw about 860 kg of beans out to the crowd. You can join a memorable bean-throwing event while enjoying around the giant temple ground full of beautiful structures!
▶Related article: Things to do near Narita Airport
※Please note that events above are cancelled in 2021 due to Covid-19.
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Setsubun is a big event for Japanese people and can be joined by the entire family. Talking about and participating in the traditional event is a fun experience for especially children, where they can also learn about the long history and the meaning of throwing beans in their house. If you are staying in Japan as a tourist, join some of the popular Setsubun events held at famous temples we mentioned above and immerse yourself in the lively atmosphere! It is a guaranteed fun experience.