The Odd-Yet-Downright-Delicious Japanese Tradition of Setsubun
Mountains of Wisdom Newsletter for February 3, 2023
Every week I write the Mountains of Wisdom Newsletter about little-known aspects of Japan and Japanese culture. Sign up to get this in your inbox for free here.
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We’re at that miserable stage in winter. You know the one, right in the middle of a colourful autumn and the cherry blossoms of spring.
Which, for the wise, means it’s actually a turning point.
In spite of the rain freezing and making the roads simultaneously slippery and bumpier than my teenage face, today is a very exciting day, Setsubun.
Setsubun, ‘seasonal division’, marks the day before the first day of spring on the old Japanese calendar, the one based on the moon. It’s a day of fun activities, with delicious implications.
As Setsubun is a time of change, we expel the evil from the past, and invite good fortune in the future.
Local supermarkets sell sets with beans (or peanuts so we can actually eat them after) and a demon mask. The demon then parades around the house, and everyone throws the beans at them while shouting “Devils out! Fortune in!” (鬼は外! 福は内!, Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!). Once the demon leaves, we slam the door.
I’m sure you’ve all heard of how Japan has KFC for Christmas (a stroke of marketing genius if you ask me). Well, there is a tradition at Setsubun called Ehomaki where you silently eat a giant roll of sushi facing the auspicious direction for that year. This tradition started in the Kansai region, and it somehow made its way up here to Tohoku.
Not that I’m complaining! My favourite is the Ehomaki with a pork cutlet in it!
What goes down, must go up
When you pass through the Zuishinmon gates that welcome you into the world of the Dewa Sanzan on Mt. Haguro, you first go down the mountain.
This is by design.
At the base of the first slope (one of the most picturesque parts of the whole Dewa Sanzan) there is a shrine that used to hold the Buddhist god Enma-sama, AKA Yama, the King of Hell. This first descent represents going into the depths of hell, and Enma-sama is there to judge whether you’re worthy of heading onwards.
Once you’re in the depths of hell, all that’s left is to go up. Once you’re in the depths of hell, you’re at a turning point that can only get better.
You could think of this time of year as the most miserable, or you could think of it as a time from when only good things can come.
It’s really up to you.
This week on the blog
My favourite post of this week was something that really hit when my dad died. The idea of doing what you want to do in retirement now, as opposed to in retirement, which may or may not come. Who really knows?
In the meantime, small habits built now can really snowball in the future, and they work either way. For whatever habits you do build, like writing, make sure you start them, and make sure they’re part of a system that means you don’t rest on your laurels. If you find that things aren’t going the way you want, change the way you look.
And lastly, this post is not about baking cakes.
That’s it for this week
Let me know what you enjoyed, and what you didn’t. I’ll try and get more of the good stuff out to you.
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Ka kite ano.