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 traditional ways nationwide throughout the year. Setsubun (節分) is one of them, which is widely recognized as a symbolic event in February along with Valentine’s Day. 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 meaningfully.
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 at that time. During the Muromachi Period(1336-1573), they started to throw beans to drive away demons which represents evil spirits who will bring all the disasters and tragic events, which 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 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 could also change its 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.
- Setsubun (節分) is the last day of winter, and celebrates the arrival of spring
- The date
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 considered better to start off from the room which is located the farthest from the entrance. Keep windows open as you throw beans so that evil spirits can be completely expelled out from them.
We usually say “Oni wa Soto, Fuku wa Uchi!” (鬼は外、福は内！) as we scatter beans around house. It means “Demons out, fortune in!” in English.
- Mamemaki (豆まき) means throwing roasted beans at home to ward off the evil spirits
- After Mamemaki, eat the same number of beans as your age, wishing for good health for a year
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 7 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!
- Ehomaki (恵方巻)is a fortune Sushi roll that is eaten only on Setsubun
- It is widely believed that eating it while facing the lucky direction brings good fortunes
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. Here are two popular temples in the Kanto region that are widely 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!
Naritasan Shinshoji/ Chiba (成田山新勝寺/東京)
If the Narita International Airport is the main gateway to start 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. You can join a memorable bean-throwing event while wandering around the giant temple ground full of beautiful structures!
※Please note that events above may be postponed or cancelled due to Covid-19.
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Setsubun is a big event for Japanese people which can be joined by the entire family. Talking about the traditional event with their parents allows children to learn the long history and the meaning of throwing beans in their house. If you are staying in Japan as a tourist, join popular Setsubun events held at famous temples we mentioned above and immerse yourself in the lively atmosphere!