I’ve said it before, and I’ll probably say it again many times in the future. The Japanese calendar is a mess.

Or at least, all of the adjustments made have made what seems like multiple alternate time lines all stacked on top of each other. Case in point, if you feel like you didn’t do enough New Year celebration on and around January 1st, you have a couple more chances to do that later.

One such chance is Setsubun on February 3rd. This is considered the last day of winter, and another chance to clear out all those demons–or as I prefer to translate them, ogres–in the closet, leftover evil influences that piled up from last year. Out with those oni! In with the luck! Or so everyone traditionally shouts while throwing beans around in the name of another chance at a fresh start.

Like many festivals, eating is an important element. I once again went the mamemaki (bean-throwing) event at Kumano Taisha, a major Susano-o shrine where he was said to have gifted the earthly inhabitants of Japan with fire. I wrote more about this event before, and this time I just focused on taking photos instead of trying to get in the way of the old people clamoring to catch enough bags of beans to be able to eat the same number of beans as their age in years–no more, and no less! One of the other eating traditions is Ehomaki, a long roll of sushi eaten while facing the auspicious direction determined for that year and contemplating your goal for the upcoming year. This tradition was popularized by the founder of Matsue, Horio Yoshiharu, when he at a long rice ball while wishing for success in battle during the Warring States era. (However, the long sushi roll as we know it today took more form in the Edo period).

As usually, the main event people gather for on Setsubun is mamemaki, though many people use this as a chance to stock up on some shiny new good luck charms for the upcoming year. Although Setsubun is often thought to have the last bout of bad weather before spring, it was a very sunny day.

Free sake! Though most people provide a donation.

This shimenawa looks like it’s been through a lot, but I like that weathered look. I always thought Taisha-tsukuri style heavy shimenawa were cool, but I have a deep appreciation for them since having helped construct one of about this size.

A relatively warm day, but the fire was cozy anyway. Thanks, Susano-o.

As usual, local government officials and other distinguished community representatives have the honor of throwing beans and rice cakes at people.

And they enjoy it.

Look! An oni!!

Sure looks bare after the beans run out.

Most people can be assured of going home with at least one bag of beans, and most likely some auspicious red or white mochi to go along with it. That’s usually not all they go home with! Everyone gets one shot at a drawing, and they get a corresponding prize, like a pair of chopsticks. I got three boxes of lotion-lined facial tissues. …Yay? (I gave one of the boxes to a friend, and I am told they are really, really nice tissues.)

Still not enough New Year for you? Did you already fail on your New Year Resolutions, and need another shot at starting over? Or were tissues just not enough for you?

Good thing for you, who flock to Shinto shrines for the earthly rewards they promise like getting rich and passing exams and avoiding traffic accidents, the Old-New Year often falls after Setsubun. Called “Kyuushougatsu” (旧正月: 旧 is “old” and 正月 is “New Years”), it would be more commonly known in English as the Chinese New Year. This is the date Japan used to use before switching to the Gregorian calendar, and shifting many of their seasonal holidays to periods of unseasonable weather for said seasonal holidays. Again, see a more thorough explanation of that here.

Izumo Taisha marks this additional start of the year with a ritual at 1:00am which includes chanting and miko dance, and a sermon from the priest. Hundreds of people squeeze into the Kaguraden, the hall decorated with Japan’s largest shimenawa, many hours before the event starts. It’s hard to squeeze, though, when many of the early arrivals are napping on blankets they brought and spread out over the tatami mats inside the hall. Others of us sat and chatted either with those we arrived with or perfect strangers who we happened to be sitting around. There are plenty of tourists from far away, but many of them are locals who have been showing up at this event for years. A couple of the gift shops and Izumo Soba restaurants lining the route from the parking lot to the Kaguraden stay open all night to give those who have gotten tired of playing cards or reading books a chance to stretch their legs and snack on some omiyage samples. Furthermore, weather was calm and the stars were brilliant that night.

Shortly after 2:00am, the moment the priest finishes his sermon, there is a sudden burst of activity as people bolt to take the gohei–folded strips of paper found in Shinto shrines–from the thin, long shimenawa hung around the edges of the inside of the Kaguraden. This is when the fun begins.

Although you could chose not to stay for it, most people are there for the prize drawing. Upon arrival, those who wish to participate (by that, I mean everyone) receive five raffle tickets and a sticker to show that they received it–no trying to get more tickets!

And what are the prizes?

Yes, those are enormous and expensive TVs you are looking at. There were five levels of prizes, and each came with a with pile of things to take home. Prizes included TVs, digital cameras, and sake and wine and local snacks, and expensive items on the high shelves of display cases at the surrounding gift stores, and travel vouchers, and hotel stays at local Izumo hotels, and microwave ovens, vacuum cleaners, and miniature shrines with statues made of precious materials inside. To be honest, many of the prizes sounded like they’d be more trouble than they’d be worth!

That seems to be the case for my coworker who happened to have a stroke of luck this year, seeing as he won a second-tier prize. It’s a good thing only three of us went, otherwise it would have been difficult to take his big pile of prizes home.

I think I can say I’ve officially rung in the new year enough times now to settle in to 2016. Plus, now I have a story about removing a big screen TV from Izumo Taisha shrine premises at 4 in the morning.


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.

Kumano Taisha, Matsue

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.

New Years is Japan’s most important holiday of the year–and like many important holidays, it usually is celebrated over the course of several days. While there are plenty of traditions associated with this season (decorating with and eating rice cakes, playing special games and reciting seasonal poetry, etc), today I’d like to introduce Hatsumode, the first shrine and temple visits of the New Year.

This is a list of major shrines and temples for Hatsumode in the San’in region that are especially well known for the following special intentions. While certain strains of Buddhism may resemble other world religions moreso in the personal salvation aspect, the Kami of Shintoism are generally happy to grant more worldly requests. Not that they always do so out of any innate goodness–many of them are unwilling to help unless you pay up, and when you do ask for something, you have to tell a lot of them your name and address or they won’t be able to find you later and grant your request. Kami may be powerful, holy beings, but they do have their limits!

The following special intentions are just suggestions. While a matchmaking kami wouldn’t necessarily turn down a request for financial prosperity, your odds might be better if you chose your Hatsumode shrine carefully.

1. 出雲大社 Izumo Taisha
Izumo, Shimane
Special intentions: matchmaking, fertility, other general intentions

2. 須佐神社 Susa Jinja
Izumo, Shimane
Special intentions: safety for one’s family, prosperous business, traffic safety, other general intentions

3. 長浜神社 Nagahama Jinja
Izumo, Shimane
Special intentions: Good luck in meeting challenges

4. 日御碕神社 Hinomisaki Jinja
Izumo, Shimane
Special intentions: Protection from evil, matchmaking, matrimonial harmony, prosperity for one’s family, safety on the seas, etc.

5. 一畑薬師 Ichibata Yakushi
Izumo, Shimane
Special intentions: Healing of eye diseases, safety for one’s family, safe childbirth, prosperous business, and any other general intentions

6. 宇美神社・平田天満宮 Umi Jinja / Hirata Tenmangu
Izumo, Shimane
Special intentions: General good luck, fruitful studies, avoiding misdeeds

7. 熊野大社 Kumano Taisha
Matsue, Shimane
Special intentions: Matchmaking, protection from evil

8. 平濱八幡宮 武内神社 Hirahama Hachimangu Takeuchi Jinja
Matsue, Shimane
Special intentions: Longevity, avoiding bad luck, prosperous business, safety for one’s family, traffic safety, etc.

9. 菅原天満宮 Sugawara Tenmangu
Matsue, Shimane
Special intentions: Passing exams, fruitful studies, avoiding bad luck

10. 八重垣神社 Yaegaki Jinja
Matsue, Shimane
Special intentions: Matchmaking, matrimonial harmony, fertility, safe childbirth, avoiding misfortunes and disasters

11. 神魂神社 Kamosu Jinja (This is where I went!)
Matsue, Shimane
Special intentions: Getting rich, prosperous business

12. 佐太神社 Sada Jinja
Matsue, Shimane
Special intentions: Guidance, good luck, traffic safety, safety on the seas

13. 美保神社 Miho Jinja
Matsue, Shimane
Special intentions: Safety on the seas, satisfactory fishing, prosperous business, flourishing crops, safe childbirth

14. 清水寺 Kiyomizu-dera
Yasugi, Shimane
Special intentions: Safety for one’s family, prosperous business, passing exams, good health, traffic safety, making dreams come true, life-long good luck, safe childbirth, etc

15. 勝田神社 Kanda Jinja
Yonago, Tottori
Special intentions: Prosperous business, safety for one’s family, and other general intentions

16. 宗形神社 Munakata Jinja
Yonago, Tottori
Special intentions: Life-long good luck on the battlefield, safety on the seas

17. 名和神社 Nawa Jinja
Saihaku, Tottori
Special intentions: Life-long good luck on the battlefield

18. 金持神社 Kamochi Jinja
Hino, Tottori
Special intentions: General good luck, but especially good financial luck

Seeing as I’m out here in Shinto country, I’ll be taking part in this tradition–possibly moreso to see the crowds! I’ll report on the experience in a few days, but until then, I have some vacation days to enjoy.

In the meantime, here is a Kadomatsu (traditional New Years decoration) set out in front of Matsue Castle. Some Kami will come and live in those bamboo stalks for a few days to bring good luck–but not to worry, they’ll be released a little later in January when those decorations are burned.

Pine is traditionally associated with January, too.