Setsubun - or "Soybean Madness"

February 3rd was "Setsubun" in Japan to celebrate the end of winter, and the following day is said to be the 1st day of Spring in Japan. Whether this is a sign of Japanese optimism or just denial I am not yet sure. After all, on the first day of "spring" here I went out to feed Momo and found the top centimeter of water in her dish was frozen solid.

In Japan, there are traditionally 24 divisions of season. The literal meaning of Setsubun is "division of seasons" and marks the end of the coldest season "Daikan" (mentioned in the post "Water Purification"). So, Setsubun is to welcome Risshun which means "spring begins".

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At Kashima Jingu, crowds gather in the afternoon. A large stage is erected next to the "Heiden" - the main building for worship. Mascots of the local soccer team, the "Antlers" were on hand to entertain the people until the main event. Kashima means "deer island" and deer are also an important symbol in Shinto, thus the team name and their connection to the shrine. City officials and Shinto priests, along with the mascots, filled the large stage and after prayers and the usual political yak-yak, they all began trowing small packets of roasted soybeans to the crowd. Unfortunately, my digital camera's batteries gave out just before that. A repeat performance of this took place in the evening at which actual team members of the Antlers came on stage to throw the packets. That always draws an even bigger crowd as the soccer players are very popular.

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What is so special about roasted soybeans? Well, there is a fable that goes with this celebration. In it, a demon or ogre, "oni" in Japanese, disguises himself as a human and goes to a widow's house. He uses a magic mallet to fashion a beautiful kimono and the woman decides to try and trick him getting him drunk and take both the kimono and the mallet from him. But the demon sees through this and reveals his true self to her. She is so frightened, she starts throwning soybeans at him and he runs away, taking his mallet and the kimono with him. On the packet of "fukumame" pictured here, you can see depictions of the woman throwing beans and the demon running away.

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So, after getting soybeans at the shrine (or store) people go home and throw them in a mock battle with demons. You take some beans in hand, open the front door and throw them shouting "Oni wa Soto"! - Demons Out!, then you turn around and throw some beans into the house shouting "Fuku wa Uchi" - Happiness in the house! You then repeat this in each room of the house (soybeans everywhere). I asked K if we should do the bathroom, and she said her family usually didn't. However, I remembered a story a friend had recently told me. He had made up a story for his 9 year old daughter who wanted to know why their bathroom door was always kept closed. He told her it was because the "demon of drowned poop" lived there. (The girl's reply was "bushwah"!) I told K about it and laughing, she opened the door and I threw beans in there as well.

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fukumame (happiness beans)

At dinner we ate one soybean for every year of our age plus one. It is said to keep you from catching cold. In fact this bean throwing tradition has its origins in China where it was done to ward off disease (represented by the demons) and welcome the spring.

Because it is done to bring happiness, the soybeans are called "fukumame" - happiness beans.

A house near the shrine had a holly twig attached to the front door. As I looked more closely I saw that there was a large sardine head stuck on the twig! It is also to ward off demons. It sure kept me away.

Another custom at Setsubun is called "ehomaki"- or lucky direction sushi roll. On Setsubun, one is supposed to sit facing the direction south-south-east (it changes each year) while eating an entire sushi roll and no talking is allowed as you are supposed to be concetrating on your wish. This will supposedly give you good luck in business, health, and making your wish come true. This is actually a custom of western Japan, but 7-11 stores are advertising it across the country.

K, who grew up here refers to it as "sushi roll" while I, coming from the US, but a community with a large population of people of Japanese heritage, learned to call it "maki-zushi". Same thing, but it seems odd that a Japanese would use the English name and an American would use the Japanese.

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Sushi is very popular world wide now, but if you are not familiar, Maki-zushi is made with sushi rice, rolled around various foods, in this case seasoned kampyo (gourd strips), denbu (sweet powder), sweet omelet, cucumber, and immitation crab, wrapped in nori - a thin sheet made from dried seaweed. I got the hang of making it from helping in the temple kitchens on Maui, as this food is commonly sold as a fund raiser.

If you'd like to make your own maki-zushi, here's how: Making Sushi Roll.

In the morning there are lots of beans on the floor of the house. In old days people use to eat them. I prefer the vacuum cleaner approach. There are so many customs and beliefs in Japan revolving about coaxing the gods to bestow luck, money, health and so on, and myths and legends to go with them, that I decided I would add one of my own. Seeing all the fukumame on the floor, I decided we must have been visited by the "Setsubunny" who left them there - a Shinto version of the Easter Bunny. Why not? It just might catch on.


The Moody Minstrel said...

During my first year in Japan, I was in the English Department office at Hasaki HS at the end of what was my last day at that school. I was sitting huddled next to the stove, wondering whether I felt sad, relieved, or just too cold to care much. Suddenly, a whole group of students (the student government, actually!) came bursting in bearing wide smiles and handfuls of toasted soybeans. With a cry of, "Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi (Demon, get out, fortune, come in)," they proceeded to unload their whole supply on me.

Apparently the whole thing had been orchestrated by a couple of the English teachers there.

After that, apologizing profusely over and over again on the verge of tears, two of the girl students helped pick the bean bits out of my hair and sweater. I kept assuring them that I'd actually thought it all very amusing, but they proved hard to convince.

That was my first Setsubun.

Don Snabulus said...

So, if the students cast away your shadow, did that mean it was spring? (or 6 more weeks of winter...)

Chen said...

I noticed the "eating one soybean for every year of one's age plus one".. Mmmm.. an elderly old man eg 80 years old will have to eat 81 soybean? :) That's a lot :D

Pandabonium said...

Great story Moody. Good question Snabbie.


Yeah. I guess it means good health gets harder to come by in old age?

When K was little she used to eat some of her grandparent's share of soybeans, yet they lived long healthy lives, anyway. Japan has the highest longevity rate in the world, but somehow I question the role of Setsubun in that.

Anyone else reading this, go see the great photos on her blog of Yaks and scenery Chen took in Sichuan China - the link is on my blog page labelled "Ramblings..."

FH2O said...

Isn't nice that the good lady doc has found her way here as well! Hi chen! U're going to learn a lot of and all kinds of interesting and wonderful information here; which to this day is beyond my fathoming where the bear gets such inexhaustible knowledge from!

I am waiting to taste my first fried soya beans! Had just been drinking thus far - had I been missing out? :)

Pandabonium said...

FH2O, thank you for coming by.

I'll get your address and send you some fukumame - roasted soybeans for you to try.

I'm not so smart or wise. More like the Wizard of Oz - hiding behind a curtain pulling levers that attempt to make me look so.

Looking forward to paddling kayaks with you some day - some where.

Robin said...

The 24 season sound like the same system as the Chinese Calendar. I found this is:


太陽黄経が315度のときで、春の初め。正月節。『暦便覧』には「春の気たつをもつてなり」と記されている。 この日から立夏の前日までが春。冬至と春分の中間にあたる。九州など暖かい地方では梅が咲き始める。





Is there a equivalent for this calendrical system in English?

j-apricot said...

Well, Japanese celebrate "Setsubun"(節分)at the night before the first day of spring.

As wikipedia says;
"Lichun usually begins around February 4, and ends around February 19.
In traditional Chinese culture, lichun marks the beginning of spring."

This custom is originated from China.

TRANSLATION of Robin's quote;

"Risshun"(立春) is one of the 24 seasons. It's around Feb. 4 and ends around Feb. 19 called "Usui"(雨水).
It is the day when the sun is exactly at the celestial longtitude of 315 degrees and the first day of spring. According to the almanac, "you can feel the atmosphere of spring'(??) Spring is between 'Risshun" and a day before "Rikka"(立夏). Risshun is in the middle of the the winter solstice and the vernal equinox. Ume (Japanese apricot) blossoms start to bloom in Kyushu and warmer areas in Japan.
One day before "Risshun" is called "Setsubun". People call 88 days from "Risshun" "Hachijyu-hachi ya", 210 days "Nihyaku-tooka", 220 days "Nihyaku-hatsuka".
People call the first strong south wind after "Risshun" "Haruichiban"(春一番).
On the early morning of Risshun at Zen temples' gates, they put paper written as "Good Luck on the first day of spring"(立春大吉)

Pandabonium said...

Thanks for coming by everyone. I sometimes wonder why I write this blog, other than for Mom. It is nice to have readers and friends.

I guess I'm saying that because I had such a monsterous day going to the big city - Tokyo - which I'll post about soon. It is nice be home and find the blog has a comment or two.

Robin, my short answer to your question is "I don't know." Unfortunately that is often my answer to any question!

Thanks J-Apricot for the translation.

Chen said...

I have seen quite a number of healthy elderly.. like those in the eighties but still fit to go hiking :)

I posted your "cousin" panda on my blog today ;) Hope u enjoy the post.

Pandabonium said...

Cool, Chen. I'll go check it out. Thanks.

FH2O said...

My humble apologies for this late comment as I missed your comment to my comment! huh!

Thanks for your kind offer but it's a hassle to receive anything from overseas here in msia especially 'foreign foodstuff'. I shall not elaborate - lets just say that it is a pain!

It would truly be wonderful if we can kayak together one fine day ... I look forward to it!

And should you chanced to be where I am; I would definitely take you out for a padddle and dinner. It would certainly be my pleasure.

Cindy Dy said...

Couldn't be written any better. Reading this post reminds me of my old room mate! He always kept talking about this. I will forward this article to him. Pretty sure he will have a good read. Thanks for sharing!


Pandabonium said...

Thanks for the comment, Cindy. Glad you enjoyed it.

Dhiraj Kumar said...

Wonderful Recipe. Pretty much ideal .. Thanks for sharing...
Restaurant Near Rajendra Nagar

Pandabonium said...

Thanks for visiting Dhiraj in Bombay. Nice restaurant. These days I eat a strictly vegetarian diet with no added salt, oils, or sugar. Delicious and healthy.