TsukuBlog

A Local Perspective on Life in Tsukuba, Ibaraki, Japan.

Convenience Stores And Supermarkets Promote Osaka Custom And Point Setsubun Celebrations In NEW DIRECTION (This year on Feb. 2nd!)

 

Poster advertising EHO-MAKI at a supermarket in Tsukuba- many now order these thick and nutrition-packed sushi-rolls weeks before the Setsubun Celebrations in early February (this year, 2021, a day earlier than usual – the evening of the 2nd.

By Avi Landau

Convenience stores and supermarkets have had a huge impact on Japan and they play a major role in the shaping of  contemporary Japanese culture and lifestyles. And though in many ways it could be said that these stores are helping to bring about the END of TRADITIONAL JAPAN, it could also be said that they are unlikely repositories of certain aspects of Japanese culture , always displaying traditional sweets of the season and never missing a chance to promote and sell foods and other paraphernalia related to traditional events and festivals. The quest for new products to sell has also led to some innovative ideas which have spiced up certain traditional events. An example of this can be seen if you go to any combini ( convenience store) or supermarket (su-pa) in the 3 or 4 weeks leading up to February 3, which is the day on which the SESTUBUN festival is celebrated (February 2nd in 2021, as an adjustment in the calendar made for the first time since 1897!).

The Special Direction for 2021 is South by South-East. According to custom (though recently created!) one should eat an entire EHO MAKI roll without pause (no easy task!) while facing in that year’s Special Direction (Eho-)!

 

All the supermarkets in Tsukuba have prepared special SETSUBUN CORNERS where soy beans (and peanuts) for throwing are displayed. Paper demon masks are sold as well.

All the supermarkets in Tsukuba have prepared special SETSUBUN CORNERS where soy beans (and peanuts) for throwing are displayed. Paper demon masks are sold as well.

These thorny sticks (good for fighting off bad luck (and demons) are being advertised as “Expellers of the Corona Virus”!

Sestubun (節分) , is sometimes called the BEAN THROWING FESTIVAL in English. This is because the main feature of the event is the throwing of soy beans , as a way of exorsizing evil and bad luck. In homes with small children, the man of the house usually dons a paper DEMON MASK (available at combinis and su-pa-s) on the evening of the 3rd, and the children proceed to hurl the beans at him crying out – ONI WA SOTO ( Demon out! ). They then continue throwing beans in various directions, shouting FUKU WA UCHI- good fortune in ! Family members then go on to eat the same number of beans as their age. This ritual is called MAME MAKI (bean throwing), and it is also performed at various temples and shrines around Japan. It is usual for adults who are in their UNLUCKY AGES(especially men of 42 and women of 33) to attend these bean throwing events as a form of YAKU YOKE (purification for those of unlucky age). Famous temples and shrines often invite celebrities (sumo wrestlers, movie stars etc.) to hurl the beans, and these scenes are often televised. Just watch the news on the night of the 3rd (though the night of this year`s -2021’s mame maki will be the 2nd).

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Many Japanese put these sardine-head amulets at their door-posts on Setsubun. You can see this custom still commonly carried out in Tsukuba`s old neighborhoods – especially Hojo.

 

Nearly all convenience stores and supermarkets have for the past few weeks been displaying a wide array of demon masks and soy bean packages .

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Another custom, though far less popular these days, is the the posting of a sardine head  fit onto a bouquet of thorny leaves (called hiiragi) on the front door or door post. This is done to keep evil and bad fortune away. It is believed that the foul odor of the fish and the uninviting thorns should be effective in keeping any demons OUT. Supermarkets have been promoting the sale of sardines for the making of these protective wreaths.

This demon is being used to promote a new idea - Setsubun eclairs - for kids who don`t like sushi rolls! (2018)

This demon is being used to promote a new idea – Setsubun eclairs – for kids who don`t like sushi rolls!

Hiiragi, and especially bean throwing have been the generally accepted, standard ways of celebrating setsubun throughout Japan.

However, in recent years combinis and su-pas have been vigorously promoting an ADDITIONAL WAY of celebrating this ancient festival. Well…  at least its new to those who have never lived in Osaka (and other parts of KANSAI ).

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I`m talking of course of the large sushi rolls called EHO-MAKI (恵方巻), which can be seen in promotional posters all over town. These oversized nori-maki (they look  like quite a mouthful) are to be eaten by each family member, in silence, while facing the lucky direction of the year (according to the traditional Japanese almanac). Though most people in Tsukuba had never heard of this ritual until recently, many now reserve their EHO-MAKI weeks before setsubun. More purchase them on the day of the festival.

Eho- maki 2021 – looks delicious!

Eating Eho maki while facing the lucky direction ( this year- 2020, it is west by southwest), is in fact a custom, though not very old, which originated (along with so many other great business ideas) in Osaka. Osakan friends living in Tsukuba tell me that they had faithfully eaten their setsubun sushi-rolls every year of their lives, and had imagined that ALL Japanese did the same. Some Tsukubans of Osakan birth used to have Eho Maki sent to  them each year by their mothers, before they became available nation-wide.

Nobody I’ve spoken to could actually explain the significance of the sushi-rolls, but my feeling is that by facing the lucky direction, and slowly and silently taking the EHO -MAKI in, the good energies of this years lucky direction are absorbed by the antennae-like roll. Of course, these sushi-rolls are also chock-full of nutritious fillings (which vary according to price), including egg, seafood etc., to help keep the family healthy through the last weeks (or months!) of cold weather.

Of course, the most important point for families is that the EHO MAKI are fun and DELICIOUS!

Let me tell you a little more about setsubun. This word (節分) in fact means SEASONAL TURNING POINT which then means that traditionally there were four setsubuns in Japan, one for the beginning of each season. Nowadays however, only the day marking the coming of spring is acknowledged by the general public with special rituals. Though it is still quite cold,the first day of spring (rishun) is on February 4th according to the traditional calendar (and officially the 3rd in 2021!). Before the Japanese converted their calendar to the one used by Europeans, a day began at sunset on the previous evening. That is why setsubun is celebrated on the evening of the 3rd. This was considered to be the start of the next day- RISHUN.

While in the rest of Japan it is only customary to throw dried soy beans on SETSUBUN, in Ibaraki and Chiba Prefectures PEANUTS , an important local agricultural product, are used by some (Remember peanuts are BEANS not nuts!) Here are SETSU BUN peanuts being promoted by a Tsukuba supermarket.

While in the rest of Japan it is only customary to throw dried soy beans on SETSUBUN, in Ibaraki and Chiba Prefectures PEANUTS , an important local agricultural product, are used by some (Remember peanuts are BEANS not nuts!) Here are SETSU
BUN peanuts being promoted by a Tsukuba supermarket.

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The ancient Chinese custom of driving away misfortune by firing arrows is still practiced at some shrines in Japan (like this one in Kyoto)

 

The ancient Chinese believed that these seasonal turning points were times when the world and its inhabitants were susceptible to attacks by evil forces. For protection they would carry out a ceremony which the Japanese call TSUINA( 追儺 ), in which ritual bows and arrows were used to exorsize demons and bad fortune.

This ceremony was introduced to Japan  as a way of trying to stop an epidemic during the reign of Emperor Mommu (697-707), and during the Heian Period (794-1192), it was carried out anually in the  Court, with bow and arrow, on the Traditional New Years Eve.

During the Muromachi Period (1392-1573), the use of bow and arrow gave way to the throwing of beans (though some temples, especially in Kyoto, use the old excorsizing techniques), and the custom began to filter down to the masses. Bean throwing on the eve of RISHUN became a standard part of Japanese life in the Edo Period (1600-1868), and remains so to this day.

The use of beans is probably related to the DEMON EXTERMINATING CEREMONY (鬼退治の際, oni taiji no sai) held at Kurama Yama , Kyoto. According to a legend, the God Bishamon recommended throwing beans into the eyes, as an effective way of combating demons. Demon Eyes can be written with the characters 魔目(which is read – ma me, a homophone for beans) and  this sounds the same as 魔滅、which means DEMISE OF THE DEMON.

Also as anyone with an interest in traditional Indian food might know, beans are believed to have special life force powers.

Another interesting point is that the reason you eat the same number of beans as your age (and one for good luck) is that before the Japanese calendar changed to the Gregorian, February was the Month of New Years (usually) and thus all Japanese considered themselves one year older (did you know that the money given to children on New Years called TOSHI DAMA, is not New Years money(toshi can mean year) , but AGE MONEY (toshi can also mean age). Thus people celebrated their BIRTHDAY by eating their ages in beans.

For seniors who dont want to or cant eat dozens of beans, it is customary to put their age worth into a tea cup, pour tea over it and drink the tea.

Eating these beans is also considered to be protection against illness and bad luck.

If you would like to celebrate setsubun this year, the convenience store or supermarket will provide you with everything you need. Bean throwing should begin after the sun goes down. A parent puts the demon mask on and goes to the front door. The demon should stand outside and be pelted by the kids who cry ONI WA SOTO.Then throw beans inside the house shouting FUKU WA UCHI !. I once brought a mask and beans with me to New York and did mame maki with my nieces and nephew. It went over very well. If youve got kids, I`d say- give it a try!

An EHO MAKI sushi roll on a poster calling for people to order them for Setsubun (which is on February 3rd)

An EHO MAKI sushi roll on a poster calling for people to order them for Setsubun (which is on February 3rd)

 

 

A Setsubun display at a convenience store in Tsukuba (2014)

A Setsubun display at a convenience store in Tsukuba

 

Once again, the Special Direction for 2021.



6 Comments

  • Thanks for this article! I lived in Osaka for a long time, and my wife is also from Osaka, and when we were getting ready for Setsubun this year we were surprised that the Eho Maki was Kansai-only. All of our other Japanese friends had never eaten Eho Maki on Setsubun, although we had just assumed EVERY Japanese person did it!

  • Arista says:

    Thanks for this article! I lived in Osaka for a long time, and my wife is also from Osaka, and when we were getting ready for Setsubun this year we were surprised that the Eho Maki was Kansai-only. All of our other Jzpanese friends had never eaten Eho Maki on Setsubun, although we had just assumed EVERY Japanese person did it!;

  • Daniel says:

    Woah! I’m 42 this year and my wife is 33, AND its 2013!
    Better get some of those beans! (but I don’t think anyone’s got them in Jersey, Channel Islands!)

  • Jeanne Mckinley says:

    Thank you for posting this article!

  • Setsubun on Feb. 2nd this year! says:

    The National Observatory of Japan has set the first day of spring for this year (2021) as February 3rd (and not the usual February 4th) so that SETSUBUN will be celebrated on the 2nd (and not the usual 3rd).This has not happened in 124 years (the last time SETSUBUN was celebrated on the 2nd was way back in 1897!).
    Apparently, despite there being LEAP YEARS (an extra day in February every 4 years) the calendar still needs some additional adjustment every now and then to remain accurate.

    So make sure you’re not late getting all your SETSUBUN goods ready for the evening of the 2nd!