Repel Demons and Win Good Fortune by Throwing Soy Beans in Japan
Setsubun, a holiday marking the beginning of Spring in Japan’s old lunar calendar, is a day filled with rituals to rid your house of past demons and encourage good luck in the year ahead.
Photos by the author.
At 3 PM on February 3 in downtown Tokyo, I stood facing south-southeast and ate a sushi roll. This was after throwing roasted soybeans around my apartment, and before impaling a sardine head with holly and hanging it on my door.
These activities were undertaken in an effort to swing some good luck my way for 2016, according to the Japanese tradition of Setsubun. Literally meaning "seasonal divide," Setsubun is a holiday marking the beginning of spring in Japan's old lunar calendar—a day filled with rituals to rid your house of past demons and encourage good fortune in the year ahead.
I decided to try my luck. I would perform the required demon-exorcising, luck-inducing rituals, and keep tabs on the following 24 hours. On the agenda:
Pelting demons with roasted soybeans: Mamemaki is the custom of throwing fuku mame (or "lucky beans"), dating back to the Muromachi period (1333-1568). For Setsubun, the beans are thrown at a nominated member of family or local society who wears an oni (monster) mask, symbolizing the banishing of demons. This also takes place en masse at shrines around Japan, and typically ends in hoards of screaming, terrified children running from demonic-looking adults.
More mamemaki: This time, the lucky beans are throw inside and outside your house as you chant, "Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi." ("Demons out, good fortune in.")
Eating lucky beans: Eat the number of beans that corresponds to your age, plus one (the extra bean is for the coming year), for good health.
Eating an ehomaki ("blessing direction" sushi roll) facing the lucky direction for the year: The particular lucky direction (hinoe) is determined by the zodiac. This year is the Year of the Monkey, which means an auspicious bearing of SSE. The sushi eaten is of the long, rolled variety (makizushi), filled with seven ingredients (correlating to the Seven Deities of Good Fortune, Shichifukujin), left uncut (cutting would represent severing good luck), and eaten in complete silence.
Hanging a grilled sardine head pierced with a holly branch at the entrance to your home, ie. hiiragi iwashi (holly and sardine): The sharp spikes of the holly leaves are said to terrify and therefore ward off ogres, as are the odorous sardines, which are offensive to ogre sensibilities.
Eating sardines: Again, because the demons can't handle the smell.
For the weeks leading up to Setsubun, flying ehomaki, oni masks, and packets of soybeans are ubiquitous. On the day, food vendors offer all manner of sizes and flavours of ehomaki (and even ehomaki-shaped hamburgers, steamed buns, and rolled sponge cakes).
So I followed these fortune-fostering steps to the best of my ability:
As I live alone in Tokyo, there was no bean-throwing at masked family members, although I did see a masked dog at the sake bar. But I wasn't about to throw beans at a dog.
I threw some beans around my apartment and outside my front door while chanting "oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi." This made me feel a little more screw-loose than lucky, but we'll see what the year brings.
I ate dry roasted soybeans, which were surprisingly good—nutty and crunchy, and a new snack discovery. I hope I didn't undo my chances at good luck by eating the rest of them when I arrived home drunk later that night.
I joined the frenzy at department store food halls and convenience stores deliberating over which would be the luckiest of rolls, and settled on one with the (hopefully auspicious) seven fillings of ikura, prawn, tuna, crab meat, egg, cucumber, pickles.
Then I found a sunny spot facing south-southeast to eat my ehomaki. Thankfully, I realised I'd been mixing up higashi (east) and nishi (west) just in time to eat it with the correct directional positioning. The roll tasted particularly delicious—fresh, sweet, well-balanced. Was this the taste of good luck?
I made a hiiragi iwashi and hung it on my door. After going to a few local florists who seemed curious but also slightly suspicious about my interest in this Japanese tradition—particularly as they hadn't any even prepared holly for the Japanese locals—I managed to find some at my local Maruetsu supermarket, all nicely packed up in a Setsubun bouquet, complete with oni mask.
I cooked up and ate the leftover headless sardines (stuffed with panko crumbs, shiso leaf, and kumquats before being grilled), and can now empathise with the oni's fear of these. Everything in my kitchen is covered in a film of sardine smell.
In monitoring any impending luckiness, I considered the criteria for luck—basically, good fortune in situations completely reliant on chance. Getting a train just before it leaves? Not good luck. Forgetting to set your alarm but waking up just in time to make it to work on time? Good luck.
Just 20 minutes after bean-throwing ritual, I received a dinner invite. Good luck already! Or just good Tinder skills?
Over the course of that day and the next, I encountered other lucky scenarios: I took a trip to a sporting goods store in Shinjuku to finally buy some new running gear, and the store was offering 15 percent off. A friend who lives in Shinjuku happened to skip a usually dedicated afternoon gym session while I was on her side of town, and sent me a photo of her drinking sake close by. I met her for a drink and ordered a glass of kongetsu no nihonshu—"this month's sake"—but there was only enough sake left in bottle for three-quarters of a glass, so I got it for free. That friend and I then went to get some food at popular nearby yakitori joint and scored the last table. We were told by locals eating there that we were "very lucky" to get a table at that time of night. On my way out, the staff bid me "goodnight" and "good luck." I stopped for a nightcap on the way home, and was bought two rounds of sake. I was running late for Japanese class the next day, but desperate for coffee and food; there was no line at the konbini, they had my favourite bento, and a new flavour of my favourite ice cream had been released. I even made it to class on time, and the teacher happened to be running late, which is relatively unheard of in Japan.
For a 24-hour period, I would consider this one particularly lucky. Serendipitous travel timing with friends, chance meetings with knowledgeable locals, free booze, vacant tables at busy restaurants during peak time, new ice cream discoveries, date invites. Thank you, lucky beans, sardines, and ehomaki—see you this time next year, facing north-northwest.