On February 10th and 11th Come Away From Mt. Tsukuba Shrine’s Toshikoshi-Sai Festival With Plenty Of Booty!
By Avi Landau
Mt. Tsukuba Shrine holds one of its most important annual events, the TOSHIKOSHI-SAI (年越際) or THE RE-SETTING OF OUR LIVES FESTIVAL on February 10th (today) and 11th. I was there this afternoon for the onset of all the excitement, which involves a very unlikely cast of characters: sumo wrestlers, men and women born under this year’s zodiac sign (the dog), as well as mothers holding their infants (born this year)! They toss rock hard mochi rice cakes (many containing coupons for other prizes), soy beans, and other assorted snacks into a frenzied crowd that scrambles for these items which are believed to bring good luck and remove the danger involved with unlucky ages. It was a perfectly cold and windy day for a drive to the shrine, which is midway up Mt. Tsukuba. Clear skies provided for what is a UNIQUE view in Japan – a flat plain extending all the way out to the horizon. It was also a perfect day to enjoy the first bloomings of Mt Tsukuba’s most famous icon — the plum tree (or, should I say, second most famous, after the GAMA, or toad). When I reached the main hall of the shrine itself, I found several NARASE MOCHI TREES on display in honor of Ko-Shogatsu.
The throwing sessions were scheduled (as they will be tomorrow) for 2pm, 3pm , 4pm, 5pm, and 6pm, and expectant crowds (including many people of unlucky age, YAKU DOSHI), pushed up close to the shrine’s main hall promptly at 2pm. They waited this way for half an hour, however, while a purification ritual (O-Harai) was held inside for those who would be doing the tossing. This delay happened again later, as those who gathered at 3pm, had to wait for 30 minutes.
When the ceremony got underway, all those who had come to the shrine quickly forgot all about their inconvenient wait. The sumo wrestlers and others proceeded to shower those gathered with assorted snacks and prizes. Most dangerously were the dried out, hard and relatively heavy mochi rice cakes, which also contained coupons for special prizes. You don’t want to get smacked in the face by one of those! I was able to snare one out of the air, only to find that my special coupon entitled me to receive a pack of tissues! What is all this about? Well, the priests at Tsukuba-San Jinja have combined several traditions to come up with their TOSHIKOSHI-SAI. First there is the date of the celebration, which coincides with Ko-Shogatsu according to the old lunar calendar. For this they decorate the shrine’s precincts with narase mochi. They also use elements of the setsubun bean throwing festival, in that they throw soy beans (among many other different items) in order to drive away bad luck. Also on setsubun, famous shrines often invite sumo wrestlers and other celebs to do the throwing. The name used for the tossing ceremony is actually the name of the ancient Chinese ritual out of which Setsubun’s bean throwing later evolved, Tsuina (in which plum branch bows and reed arrows were used to drive away bad fortune). In fact, many locals refer to the TOSHIKOSHI-SAI as a setsubun or MAMEH MAKI.
The priests of Mt. Tsukuba Shrine have put a special emphasis on the rituals efficacy for those in their unlucky years (most importantly 42 for men and 33 for women, though there are many other unlucky ages for each sex). This is also connected with New Year’s and setsubun in that, traditionally, all Japanese became one year older together in this season, before the calendar changed bringing New Year’s to January First and before individual birthdays were celebrated.
If you plan on going tomorrow, keep two things in mind. The tossing will probably not begin as scheduled, so be patient, AND beware of those flying MOCHI RICE CAKES!
You might want to read about the Shrine`s surprising history (it was for centuires a vast complex of Buddhist temples, I`ve written about it here! You will not here the real story up at the shrine!