Celebrate Spring in Classic Style: Setsubun
As I walk up the hill towards Ikegami Honmonji Temple, I pull my hat down a little further against the February wind. Located deep in the heart of Ota – one of Tokyo’s 23 wards – the temple is the largest and most famous in this area. It was established near the end of the thirteenth century and believed that the Buddhist priest Nichiren spent his last moments of his life here. This article introduces the “Setsubun Tsuina Ceremony”, which is one of the main events at Ikegami Honmonji Temple.
Held annually in early February (typically on the 3rd), Setsubun is a custom that marks the official start of spring according to the Japanese lunar calendar. To celebrate the new season, there is a tradition whereby roasted soybeans are thrown in the name of warding off evil spirits and welcoming in good fortune for the remaining year ahead. The “bean throwing” custom was established during the Muromachi Period (1338 to 1573) and families would traditionally gather in the entrance to their home just after dark with soybeans in hand. One household member would then wear a demon mask and give a menacing roar while the rest of the family proceeded to pelt them with beans and chant, “Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi! (Evil out! Good luck in!)”.
Finally making our way up the steep steps to Ikegami Honmonji’s Temple’s main entrance. The two guardian Nio statues standing on either side of the gate loom over us as we pass into the central grounds. From here, a long stage decorated in red and white cloth runs back to the main building. The space on either side has been cordoned off into sections and a few people sit quietly on small blue tarp sheets reading newspapers or eating snacks.
Far below, chanting priests lead a parade of celebrities that includes professional wrestlers, actors, singers and television personalities, as well as local dignitaries. They are here to throw the beans this afternoon, and as they pass by, cameras snap while the crowd murmurs in excitement. It’s not long before they disappear into the main temple building and the rest of us begin huddling around the stage.
The crowd steadily grows, and by the time the guests file out to take up their throwing positions, the central courtyard is packed. It is then that a policeman announces the rules: take only the beans you catch; don’t take beans from someone else; don’t hit anyone. A bell rings and bags of beans begin to fly!
The children next to me scramble with Olympian speed to gather bags that fall to the ground, and adults leap and lunge as though their lives depend on it to catch those still in the air. I get hit on the head, the eye and shoulders by countless bags of beans as I join in. The policeman continues his safety announcement until finally all the bags have been claimed. The crowd then applauds, and I check the time – a mere eight minutes have passed since the first bag was tossed.
With the main event over, my friend and I walk over to the food vendors to wait out the rush for the trains.
“Wait”, I say holding up one of three bags I caught, “does this mean we are oni?”
“No,” she laughs as she wraps her hands around a steaming cup of amazake (a sweet non-alcoholic drink made from sake lees). “If you eat one bean for each year you’ve been alive plus one extra, you’ll have good luck all year.”
So much good fortune tied to a simple bean, I think to myself, as I start counting and crunching.
For further reference, check the event here.
Setsubun (Bean-Scattering Festival)
Setsubun marks the end of the winter season and the arrival of spring, according to the old lunar calendar. Japanese people scatter beans to bring good luck into their homes. In Ikegami-Honmonji...
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