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

In Tsukuba`s Old Neighborhoods SETSUBUN can be just as lively as O-Shogatsu ( New Year`s) – or even MORE SO!

Most of the houses in my former neighborhood of Hojo, Tsukuba have put these talismans of thorny leaved holly and sardine heads on their doorposts on the occasion of SETSUBUN


By Avi Landau

Setsubun is Japan`s traditional celebration of the first day of spring as it is recognized according to the traditional Japanese calendar (which was imported from China). According to that system, the year is divided into 4 perfectly equal seasons ( of 90 days each) with the equinox days and solstices used as markers for determining the seasonal change days- which were all called SETSUBUN ( though now this term is only used to refer to the eve of the first day of SPRING). The four SETSUBUN, which were also believed to be spiritually unstable days in which the world ( and humanity) was more susceptible than usual to attack by unlucky or evil forces, were believed to occur at the midway points between the solstices and their nearest equinox.

Thus,the first day of spring (RISHUN)- was ( and still is) considered to be at the halfway point between the winter solstice (TO-JI, 冬至) and the vernal equinox (shunbun no hi, 春分の日). This falls on either Feb. 3 or 4th of the Gregorian calendar, when it is still quite cold in Japan- and in fact in many of its regions the coldest days of the season will come after ( maybe weeks after) the FIRST DAY OF SPRING.

Still Setsubun was always considered the end of the GREATEST PERIOD OF COLD of the year ( Daikan 大寒). According to a reference book at the library SETSUBUN was refered to in various regions of Japan with alternate names which are an indication of what the day signified to the people. For example- it was called  FUYU BANARE (冬ばなれ- Winter`s Parting-) in a part of Yamagata Prefecture and SETSU GAWARI (節替)- Seasonal Change- in Hida Takayama.

Even more interestingly, in some parts of Japan SETSUBUN was referred to with a name that indicated that it was not only the begining of spring- but the beginning of the new year! I have found such alternate names for  SETSUBUN as:  O-Toshi (大年, GREAT  YEAR), used in Shimane Prefecture and Toshi no Yoru (歳の夜, the NIGHT OF AGING), used in Tokushima Prefecture, among others.

Another of the MANY talismans the local people call HIIRAGI, which have been put up on the doorpost for SETSUBUN in Hojo, Tsukuba

In fact, for more than a thousand years, while the Japanese exclusively followed their own version of the Chinese calendar, New Year`s ( O-Shogatsu), the most important festival of the annual cycle of events, was strongly connected in peoples`minds with the COMING OF SPRING- since according that calendar the first day of the year usually falls in (the Gregorian) February, often just around Setsubun time.

( The traditional calendar is a LUNI-SOLAR calendar with setsubun being deterimined based on observation of the sun ( at the half way point between solstice and equinox- and the new year and each new month determined by the phase of the moon).

In fact, it seems that at certain periods of Japanese history, in certain places (especially in Western Japan), among certain people, SETSUBUN was the New Year or an alternative New Year as various names such as KAMI SHOGATSU (神正月, New Year`s of the Gods), TOSHI TORI NO HI (年取の日, the Advancing of the Years Day), and TO- SHOGATSU (唐正月, Tang New Year`S) suggest.

A mother in demon mask wields a hefty club and scares the daylights out of a bunch of kids who defend themselves with soy beans

Over the centuries SETSUBUN and O-Shogatsu became so intertwined in people`s minds that many of the customs for these two different events became interconnected- the most important of these being the TSUINA (追儺) ceremony, in which demons were excorcized at the Imperial Court on New Year`s Eve. This ancient Chinese custom using bow (made of peach wood) and arrow (made of reed) eventually evolved by the Muromachi Period into the now iconic SETSUBUN custom in Japan- the throwing of beans at someone dressed as a demon, which is done to symbolically drive evil away ( but now mostly for the pure fun of it).

Then, also in connection with the coming of a new year , each person should eat his or her own age worth of beans (traditionally, there were no individual birthdays in Japan and each person was thought to age together with everyone else at the New Year).

It also became customary for those of Unlucky Age (YAKU DOSHI, 厄年)- the most important of these being 42 for men and 33 for for women- to purify themselves on SETSUBUN, once again showing the conncetion between the first day of spring and the idea of a new year/age.

The Toshikoshi Sai at Mt Tsukuba will be held this year (2020) on Feb. 10th and 11th with throwing times at 2 , 3 , 5 and  6 O`clock on the 10th and 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 O`clock on the 11th

Well despite the strong connection between New Years and the halfway point between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox, the Japanese government decided to suddenly change the calendar- to the one that Europeans use- and thus moved New Years from where it had always been to about a month earlier in the year ( about 30 days closer to the winter solstice).

Maybe this was fine for the city folk and the merchants. But for the farmers it might have been much harder to accept ( though they did). Proof of this can be seen in the old village where I live ( and in many of the other old neighborhoods in Tsukuba and the rest of Japan). While I expected the January first New Years to be full of seasonal decoration on my block ( as is the case in most NEW neighborhoods in Japan or in the cities), I was disappointed to find that NOT A SINGLE HOUSE had put up a kado matsu ( pine decoration at the doorpost). In fact, the neighbors were astonished that I had put some up at my door. They seemed to have found it very AMUSING.

Besides the lack of decoration, I also found O Shogatsu in my neighborhood to be extremely quiet- I would almost say GRIM.

I attributed this to the fact that the area was well past its best days and that the locals had given up hope. A general mood of depression I thought.

But then SETSUBUN- the first day of spring came. All the homes were now decorated for the season (with thorny leaves and sardine heads), there were lively festivals , neighborhood cleanings and most importantly-  plenty of good cheer! My neighbor came by early in the morning ( for the first time in a long time) bringing some festive SEKIHAN rice ( which she did not do during O Shogatsu).

It felt like…….. well…….. like  New Years!

Probably the most surprisingly New Years-like features were the facts that :

1) at least two shops were doing brisk business selling TOSHIKOSHI SOBA ( the term which the Japanese usualyl use for the buckwheat noodles eaten on New Year`s eve) on the Eve of the first day of spring- Setsubun!


2) on the 4th, the day of RISSHUN ( the first day of spring), there is always a mochi tsuki (rice pounding) event on the main commercial street in the town- another activity more suggestive of New Year`s than just SETSUBUN.

I took this picture a few years ago. One of my neighbors in Hojo,Tsukuba had always hung some garlic at the front door to keep misfortune away. A couple of months after I posted pic, this house was GONE- ripped apart by a tornado. So much for the protective effects of garlic.

I talked about this with my friend Harumi Takaya, who grew up in one of Tsukubas`s old neighborhood. She wholly agreed with my observation and she added that when she was young she didnt even know what KADO MATSU ( New Year`s pine decorations) were. There were no outdoor decorations for the January New Year- but like Hojo, for SETSUBUN everyone put up a HIIRAGI (leaf and sardine talisman). She went even further and said that the farmers have always felt more comfortable with celebrating New Year`s in February- though they do not- as that would have been showing disapproval of the policies of the Emperor.

Instead they make SETSUBUN a joyous occassion

Something else that really made an impression on me this year on SETSUBUN was a photo that Asako Seo showed me of a specially designed Bento Lunch Box meal which her daughter had made (for herself!) for the occassion. Using different foods cut to the right shape and proportion this young woman had created a little DEMON lunch for herself.

Though I have always been quite astounded by the beautiful, nutrious, delicious and everyday different lunches that Japanese mothers prepare for their kids and husbands ( as oppossed to the sandwich, potato chips and apple that my school friends used to get back in the US- in Japan the TIME and EFFORT put into the creation of these are believed to be expressions of love and affection in themselves), the fact that a girl in her twenties would spend the time to create such a meal proved to me how important DECORATION and APPRECIATION OF THE SEASON remains in Japan.

A demon-motifed bento lunch box for SETSUBUN

Be sure to check the doorposts of your neighborhood to see if there are any sardine heads taped up. If you live in the city or in a new development there probably aren`t. You can always come to Hojo!

The perfect lunch for Setsubun - sardine pasta at Quattro, in Matsushiro - 1000 yen, with coffee.

The perfect lunch for Setsubun – sardine pasta at Quattro, in Matsushiro – 1000 yen, with coffee.


  • alice says:

    Haha! A sporting mother, and a cute obento to eat up the demon!

  • alice says:

    Talking about Tsukuba, have you ever bought canned oden from a vending machine? I heard that besides Akibahara, one can also buy canned oden from vending machines in Tsukuba. I heard that it costs 300 yen per can and it comes with a wooden skewer inside for piecing the contents. Am I right?

  • Hi Joesan says:

    I miss oden on these cooolllldddd winter days.