“Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi! Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!”
February 3rd was Setsubun, a holiday in Japan to mark the changing of the seasons and ward off bad luck to make room for good luck. Even my tea ceremony lesson room is decorated with a painting of a sad and comical looking oni. This creature of Japanese folklore is sometimes translated as “demon,” but I prefer “ogre” as sometimes they’re more misunderstood than evil. On Setsubun, the basic practice is to have a member of the household wear an oni mask and the other members of the household chase them around throwing dried soy beans at them, shouting “out with the oni, in with the luck! Out with the oni, in with the luck!” Then everyone eats however many beans for however many years they’ve lived–an 8-year-old would stop at eight beans, but an 80-year-old would have to eat eighty of them.
This was how I celebrated my first Setsubun last year, just hanging out with friends.
However, Setsubun can be a big deal for many shrines and temples, too. In Matsue, the biggest Setsubun festivities are at Kumano Taisha. Like Sada Shrine, it’s historically had a strong influence on the region and has close ties to Izumo Taisha.
This is one of the famous shrines dedicated to Susano-o (he’s a pretty big deal in the San’in region). Not only did he rid Japan of the terrible Yamata-no-Orochi, but he taught the earthy inhabitants of the lands how to create fire using tools. Hence, Kumano Taisha is known as a special place for the spirit of fire, and is also famous for its Sanka-sai Fire Festival in mid-October. There is an auxiliary hut on the shrine grounds dedicated to this, known as the Sanka-den.
Speaking of auxiliary shrines, Izanami–both considered Susano-o’s mother and the mother of many other lands and gods–who was killed giving birth to fire has a pretty sizable one here. She’s also kind of a big deal in the San’in region.
Ah, and those vermillion torii gates mark a spot for Inari, too. Commonly known as the fox god (though not necessarily a fox), this kami is thought to provide good harvests and riches, and the Matsudaira clan that ruled over the Izumo domain through most of the Edo period was especially dedicated to him (but sometimes argued “her”). One of the old men at the shrine this day awaiting the Setsubun festivities excited asked if I could read the sign over there. “Do you know this kami? It will give you lots of money! Haha!”
So just what were some of the festivities going on? Setsubun is like the sequel to the Hatsumode New Years visits, with a special emphasis on making sure you’re totally rid of all the impurities or bad luck or illness or disasters that piled up over the course of the previous year. It’s sort of like resetting your luck to start with a clean slate. As part of that, old good luck charms from the previous year are deposited at the shrine to be burned.
Some of the faithful pay to undergo a purifying ritual before the main event starts, while others just make their offerings and say their prayers.
Alcohol is useful for purifying things, so sake is served.
And household hygienic products are useful for similar illness-warding measures, so upon arrival everyone was given a lottery ticket to see what kind of cleanly item they would get to take home. I got soap-scented toilet disinfectant.
As the people gathered in anticipation, I overheard some interesting conversations. Some of the people who received big boxes of tissues complained, “how am I supposed to catch things while I’m holding this?” A man had brought his adult daughter who kept her hoodie on in the light rain, and demonstrated while he suggested how they should dive for fallen items in the crowd. She just have him a flat “no way” in response. Someone who seemed to be in-the-know instructed a guy with a camera about angle the first item would come and where it would hit the crowd. However, no one looked as fired-up as the elderly people, who turned out in the greatest numbers. That may have been because it was a weekday, it may have been because they’re really serious about their Setsubun and have years of perfecting their prize-catching techniques.
The sounds of the drums and flutes within the shrine grew louder, and the priest and the procession of dignitaries wearing traditional Japanese garb on top of their business suits entered the auxiliary hall beside the main hall. The prizes started with an arrow, a traditional good luck charm to pierce through evil influences, shot out into the audience at precisely the angle and distance I had overheard predicted, and people scrambled for it like a home run ball in a baseball stadium. A second arrow was fired after that one.
Then the mayor of Matsue Masataka Matsuura (say that five times fast–I do quite a bit when I’m interpreting) and other dignitaries starting tossing bags of dried soy beans (mame) and small pounded rice cakes (mochi) things got crazy. I couldn’t help but be reminded of our Friendship City, New Orleans, and the shouts of “throw me something, mister” at Mardi Gras. Sure, the scale was different, but the seriousness in catching throws and pocketing as many as you could was perhaps just as enthusiastic. The old people had to make sure they’d take home enough mame to match their years, after all!
As for the mochi, it was still edible but had grown a little hard by then. You know how I know this? Just as I was thinking, “hmm, this is perhaps a little scary” I got smacked in the forehead with a bag of them. Somebody snatched that bag before I could, though. It didn’t hurt, but it was a little red after that (which thankfully cleared up before the TV news crew interviewed me later. I tend to be reporter bait at these kinds of events). At last when the man in front of me bend out to pick something up, I was able to snatch the bag that was on his back, and then I retreated for a better view.
I’m not sure how long it lasted, maybe only ten minutes or so, but they went through a lot of mame and mochi in that time.
When being interviewed on my thoughts later, I was asked what I wished for this year. What? I was still supposed to be making wishes? I just wanted to get my mame! One of the reporters filled in with a typical local catch phrase, “Maybe some En-musubi?” “Uh… sure, yeah!”
Too bad those poor oni don’t get to make any New Year wishes.