‘Setsubun’: devils out, mystery sushi in!


When I woke up, there was a large sushi roll sitting on the “genkan” step in my house. “Hmm,” I eyed it suspiciously, then decided to leave it there and instead took the newspaper from the mail slot and headed to the living room.

A couple of hours later, some neighbors came over. “Do you want to go throw beans with us?” Of course, I couldn’t refuse — I’m always up for a food fight. And this one was for a good cause: to drive devils away. What devils? you ask. The ones in your house, of course. You do have devils, called “oni,” in your house — everyone does, which is why we must throw them out every year on Feb. 3. I have proof that they’re in my house, as every now and then, I notice the guest slippers are missing. Furthermore, cats can change into oni, and needles too, so truly, no one is safe.

The method of getting these unwelcome guests to leave is surprisingly simple: just throw beans at them and yell, “Devil out!” And be sure the door is open so they can leave. Then hang a sardine head above the door, and no more evil will come in thereafter. Of course, a rotting sardine head over your door is probably enough to repel friends as well. You can look forward to a quiet beginning of spring with no visitors, not even door-to-door salesmen.

What all this had to do with a sushi roll sitting in my genkan, I had no idea, so I just waved goodbye to it as I passed on my way out to throw beans with my neighbors at the annual “Setsubun” ceremony. I’m not sure if we are throwing the devils out of the temple or off the entire island, but the ceremony involves standing around a large bonfire outside the temple and chanting sutras while passing a bulky wooden-beaded rope (“juzu”) from person to person around the circle. This is all done to a drumbeat emanating from inside the temple.

Setsubun is actually the celebration of the end of winter and the beginning of spring according to the lunar calendar, which, in case you didn’t know, is the ancient calendar used by people who lived on the moon. Obviously, there is nothing springlike about February here on this part of Earth.

The setsubun ceremony lasts an hour, perhaps the amount of time it takes the devils to take the hint and leave. The highlight of the event is, naturally, the part that appeals to the Japanese instinct to catch flying food. As in many such food throwing events, the setsubun ceremony involves throwing packets of food, in this case roasted soybeans, from the balcony of the temple into the crowd of people gathered below. It’s more like a mosh pit below as the “o-baa-chans” rush and knock each other over in an attempt to catch the packets. Inside each packet is also a piece of paper with a prize written on it. The prizes range from practical to more practical, such as work gloves, sushi knives, cutting boards, instant ramen and sugar. Then for good health you are to eat the number of beans from the packet that matches your age.

When the ceremony was over and we all went home, that sushi roll was still waiting for me in the genkan. “What’s this for?” I asked my neighbors. “The o-baa-chans make them and distribute them to everyone on the island. On Setsubun, you have to eat that sushi roll while facing northeast because that is the direction from which happiness comes. And you’re not allowed to talk while eating it either, or the happiness will run away.”

Devils out, happiness in.