Setsubun

Setsubun was a few weeks ago. I’ve never been able to attend any of the events for it during the years I’ve been here, just due to bad timing with work. This year, however, I managed to find some time where I could sneak over to the preschool for an hour to watch two of my coworkers from the Board of Education and terrify all of the children- on purpose!

beans edited

Setsubun is on February 3rd and marks the start of spring in Japan, though if you look out the windows right now you wouldn’t know it (the snow is piled high, my friends). On Setsubun, families gather and throw roasted beans at someone dressed like an oni (devil) while saying “鬼は外、福は内!” which means “devils out, luck in!” This custom, called mamemaki (literally, bean-scattering)  symbolizes cleansing away all the bad stuff of the previous year and bringing in luck for the new year.

 

Which brings me  back to preschool, where every year the kids gather in their playroom and are visited by two oni- two representatives from the board of education, who wear devil costumes and carry big, floppy, plush iron clubs. The kids are given peanuts, and when the devils arrive, they have to throw their beans and “drive the devils out.”

Oni edited

What really happened was a lot of fright and crying! The kids were terrified by the goofy-looking oni. They cried, I cried (I’m a sympathetic crier) but eventually they drove the oni from the room with their effort. Once the kids had calmed down, the oni sheepishly came back into the room to tell the kids that they’d learned their lessons, and how they would try to be good this year- and that the kids should be too, or they’d be back again! I am under the impression that some parents use threats of the oni prematurely returning to get their kids to behave.. from what I saw, it’s probably a very effective threat!

oni chase 2

Besides getting to watch the preschool event, I also made and ate eho-maki with some friends. Eho-maki is a special type of very large and uncut sushi roll, which you eat facing that year’s lucky direction that changes based on that year’s zodiac- eho maki actually translates to “lucky direction roll.” You can buy eho-maki at grocery stores, but we figured it would be more fun to make. There are rules- you have to face the correct direction, you can’t cut it into smaller pieces, and you can’t speak until you eat the whole thing. This year was SSW, which required around five minutes of googling and math to figure out where we should be facing. Turns out, SSW is right towards my heater!

Eho-maki typically has 7 different ingredients, to symbolize the 7 gods of good fortune. And like I said before, you can’t cut eho-maki to make it smaller- that would be like cutting your luck! Or so I was told. For our first, formal rolls we made some smaller versions- so I wouldn’t be stuck eating in silence for ten minutes while I struggled through eating an entire roll. After our good-luck rolls, we ended up just having a nice sushi-party with the rest of our ingredients.

ehomaki

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New Years Celebrations in Takinoue

New Years is one of the most important holidays in Japan. It’s a time when family gathers to spend the season together, and there are a lot of traditions that go into New Years celebrations.

For my New Years, I did many things! I spent the first part of the night eating osechi-ryouri with some friends and my sister, who was visiting from America. Osechi is a traditional Japanese meal for New Years. They spend several days eating osechi, which consists of many small dishes, like kamaboko (fish cakes), kuro-mame (sweet black beans), ebi (shrimp), datemaki (sweet omelettes with fish paste), and many other foods. Every food has meaning and symbolizes a wish for the upcoming year.

 

osechi
Elaborate osechi-ryouri! It was delicious!

 

As midnight approached, I went to the temple with many other people. It was very cold, but we all  bundled up and gathered. During the summer, I can hear the temple bell ring from my house every morning, but I had never been to the temple at night before. There, we rang the temple bell 108 times. Each ring of the bell symbolizes one of the earthly desires of Buddhism, and it’s rung to leave them behind in the new year.

This year, when the bell ringing was finished, I… went to bed! But not before being invited to the local monk’s house (in typical Takinoue fashion), where we had some sake and chatted in the early hours of the  New Year.

 

The next morning, my sister and I went to Takinoue’s shrine for hatsumode, the first visit to the shrine of the year. Many people go right at midnight, but we were both tired from our travel and late night before. Takinoue’s shrine is really beautiful; it is set on a hill overlooking the town, across from the shibazakura hill. In winter, you have a lovely view of the town and river, covered in snow.

 

shrine-view
This is the view from the shrine. It’s so beautiful in winter!

We went early, so it was still very quiet at the shrine. We only saw one other family there. My sister and I paid our respects to the shrine, and then get our omikuji, or our fortunes for the year. Omikuji  have a lot of detail and talk about things like your work life, travel, love, illness, your wishes, lost things… it goes on! It also gives you a general indication of your luck for the future. The best is dai-kichi, or “great blessing,” and the very worst is dai-kyo, or “great curse.” I’ve never seen dai-kyo though!

 

omikuji
My fortune for the year

 

I ended up drawing chu-kichi, middle luck! My sister, however, got dai-kichi; so hopefully she will have a very lucky year- and I’ll at least have a middle-lucky year!