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Setsubun: Do You Know Where Your Beans Are?

Ah, Setsubun. This special day marks the end of winter and the beginning of spring on the Japanese lunar calendar. It’s a little bit like a New Year’s party in terms of one period coming to a close while a new one starts. It is celebrated in temples and home throughout the country. There are traditional foods and traditional behaviors. One such behavior involves chasing the male head of the household out of the house while throwing beans at him and yelling “Out with the Devil!”

You can’t make this stuff up.

Setsubun comes around every year on February 3rd or 4th. It’s like the Japanese spring equinox. It’s a day to let go of winter and welcome spring. The behavior of the day is reflective of this – the alpha male of the house traditionally dresses up as an oni (devil) and his family throws beans at him while chanting “Devils out! Happiness in!!” until he runs out the front door, which is then slammed behind him. This is meant to drive evil spirits from the home and welcome good ones.

This tradition isn’t practiced so widely at home anymore. Now, celebrations (some involving bean throwing) are held at temples. At some events, celebrities and sumo wrestlers show up. Rather than having everyone chuck beans at some unlucky guy, however, these events may feature celebrities throwing prizes, money, or gold foil-covered bans into the assembled crowd.

There’s food, too (as there often is with Japanese holidays). Setsubun’s special treat is the ehomaki. It’s a long roll of sushi that hasn’t been cut (about 20cm long). It is filled with seven different items because seven is a “lucky” number, and also reflects the legendary seven gods of happiness in Japanese folklore. Every year, a direction is designated as “lucky” (this year it’s north-northwest), and the goal is to eat the entire ehomaki in silence while facing the lucky direction.

I’m not a big fan of rolled sushi, but it’s not every day you see a compass attached to your food in the supermarket.

Rolled Sushi, Ehomaki
Ehomaki, a rolled sushi traditional at Setsubun

The compass attached to each roll of sushi is supposed to help you turn in the correct direction while attempting to eat the entire ehomaki.

While I did not participate in setsubun this year (aside from buying the compass-sushi), it’s a quirky, interesting way to say goodbye to winter and welcome spring. The day also seems to coincide very closely with groundhog day in the U.S. Both are fairly ridiculous. If relying on a rodent to predict the weather for you or throwing beans at your Dad sounds like fun, that’s great. I’m going to wait until I can turn my heater off before I officially welcome spring.

One Comment

  1. poncat poncat February 7, 2012


    I’m a Japanese and found your blog today.

    Thank you for explaining about Eho-maki. I didn’t know that. LOL
    And actually, I’ve never seen rolls with a compass sold at a store…..

    Anyway, are you from Oregon?
    I’m in Oregon now.
    I have been living here since 1979.

    I miss Japanese food so much.
    I envy you!!

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