節分 Setsubun: A Japanese Coming of Spring Festival

A normally robust P.E. teacher quietly issues a ‘sumimasen’ at my shoulder. She stands behind my chair with a small paper bag in two hands outstretched, in the polite style of giving something. Rough calligraphy style kanji swoops over the front as is the norm with small, locally crafted gifts.

She offers me the bag and bows, then looks around pleadingly at the English teachers for help. One obligingly comes over to translate, curiously eyeing the bag. Setsubun is coming, she says, and the P.E. teacher wanted to give me a gift to welcome in the coming of the festival.

 

Setsubun is a coming of spring festival, held on the last day of winter, and is celebrated with a New Year style banishing of the bad, and ushering in the good. Fermented soy beans are thrown around the house, and sometimes at people, to banish bad spirits so that your home and family are ready for the Spring. These days, this is mostly done in shrines but in villages it is very common for one person to don the costume and mask of an Oni, 鬼, and dance from house to house whilst everyone throws beans at it to ward away evil.

1924
Oni; the bringer of bad spirits, the sugar coated peanuts in place of soy beans, and Ofuku; the lady the brings good fortune.

As I’m often surprised with seasonal gifts I’m prepared. I whip out a polvorone from my drawer and offer it to her, two handed, as a ‘Supein keki’ (a Spanish cake).  Looking genuinely shocked, she admits she practises flamenco, and didn’t realise I had any connection to Spain, she thought I was only British.

She leaves me with an invitation to join her and the other teachers in taking some students to the shrine next door on Setsubun day, to throw beans.

In the Kansai Region, where Tokyo is based, it is also a tradition to eat Eho-Maki.  I’ll be posting about that on Setsusbun, Friday 3rd Feb.

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