What is Setsubun?
Though not a public holiday, Setsubun is one of Japan’s most distinctive festivals. It even has its own emoji: that red-faced, angry-looking guy is an oni, or demon, which the Setsubun rituals are designed to drive out.
You’ll start seeing oni faces for real around the end of January, ready for Setsubun festivities on February 3rd. The date marks the last day of winter — according to the old Japanese lunar calendar, if not the weather — and the celebrations are a way of preparing for spring and the new beginnings ahead.
That’s where the oni comes in: it represents the bad fortune that you want to steer clear of in the coming year. Luckily oni can be scared off with something very simple — soybeans.
In a ritual called mamemaki, or bean throwing, you take roasted soybeans (fuku mame, lucky beans) and throw them at an oni to drive it away. Where do you find an oni? Anyone who doesn’t mind putting on a demon mask — or scaring a few small children — can play the part. If there aren’t any volunteers, you can simply throw the fuku mame outside your front door to represent ridding your home of bad luck.
The most important thing is what you say while you’re doing it: “Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!”, which means “Demons out! Good luck in!”
For even better fortune, pick up the beans after you’ve thrown them: eating the same number as your age is thought to be extra lucky.
Setsubun in Fukuoka
As well as private celebrations in homes and schools, you can join in public Setsubun festivities all over Fukuoka.
At Kushida Shrine in Hakata, for example, visitors enter the grounds through the mouth of an enormous grinning face — an otafuku, or smiling woman, who represents happiness and good fortune. The otafuku mask at Kushida Shrine is said to be one of the largest in Japan. People gather in the courtyard to catch lucky beans thrown into the crowd by priests and their helpers — and you might even spot kabuki actors taking a break from performances at the nearby Hakataza theatre to take part in the festivities.
Sumiyoshi Shrine in Hakata also hosts an all-day Setsubun celebration. Starting at 11am and ending at 6pm, there are mamemaki ceremonies every hour on the hour. Each one begins with a priest shooting three arrows made of reeds over the audience’s heads from a special peach-wood bow as another way of driving out evil spirits. (Don’t worry, the arrows aren’t sharp.)
Then you have a few minutes to try and catch the little packets of soybeans that the organisers chuck into the crowd — but be warned, you’ll face stiff competition from the other people there! During my visit I spotted several older visitors holding up bags or even hats to try and catch as many lucky beans as possible. Setsubun is one (rare) occasion in Japan when it’s not only acceptable but expected to push to the front!
After the bean throwing take some time to wander past the food stalls set up by the shrine’s entrance, where you can pick up ehou-maki, a long maki roll made with seven ingredients to represent Japan’s seven gods of good fortune. Unlike usual maki rolls, these ones aren’t cut into bite-sized pieces — so that your happiness in the year ahead won’t be divided, either.
When you eat your ehou-maki, be sure to face the right ehou — lucky direction — for that year. (2017 was north-north-west, 2018 is south-south-east and 2019 is east-north-east.) Turn the right way, close your eyes and tuck in while thinking about everything you hope to achieve in the coming months — and above all, don’t speak! Ehou-maki are meant to be eaten in silence to give your wishes for the future the best chance of coming true.