February in Japan is also called kisaragi meaning it’s still very cold out there so you need to wear many layers to keep warm. Originally, this meant wearing more layers of kinu silk. The month to wear lots of silk layers (kinu wo sara ni kirutsuki) was shortened kisaragi.
By now you’ve noticed the stacks of soybeans and oni masks at the supermarket. Maybe you’ve even ordered your eho maki to pick up on February 2nd or 3rd. These are all preparations for the biggest festival in February. Setsubun means to split the seasons and is celebrated on the February 3rd, the eve of the first day of spring (risshun).
Families throughout Japan throw roasted soybeans in their homes while chanting Oni wa Soto Fuku wa Uchi (Out with the demons, and in with good fortune). Why soybeans? Well, roasted soybeans are said to have powers to dispel evil. There is a proper way to throw those soybeans. Have one family member put on an oni mask. Then, open the doors and windows, and throw your beans toward the oni shouting “Oni wa Soto” twice. Next, close all the doors and windows, and throw your beans shouting “Fuku wa Uchi” twice. This will chase out the demons and keep the happiness inside!
When done throwing the soybeans, pick them up and eat the same number as your age plus + 1 to ensure good health for the next year. Need to eat a whole lot? You can make fuku cha (lucky tea) by pouring hot water over your beans and drinking the broth.
Traditional eho maki
Eho maki (lucky sushi rolls) have become very popular in recent years. This tradition comes from Kansai. Eho maki usually have seven ingredients to represent the Seven Lucky Gods (Hotei, Jurojin, Fukurokuji, Bishamonten, Benzaiten, Daikokuten, Ebisu). Cutting an eho maki with a knife is considered unlucky: En wo kiru or cut ties with.
Take your eho maki, face the eho (lucky direction of the year), and eat from end to end in silence while praying for happiness. Eho is the lucky direction where it’s said that the lucky god of the year will come. Generally, there are four lucky directions in an area, and the direction you face each year will rotate among those directions. 2014’s lucky direction is North Northwest.
Other traditions that vary according to region include yaikagashi, made by stringing sardine heads on a hiiragi branch (holly) or soybean branch. This decoration is put up outside to ward off evil. Many regions also eat sardine dishes on Setsubun.
Why do the oni have bull’s horns and tiger-patterned shorts? In the old days, directions were expressed with the 12 lunar animals. Oni’s came from the direction called kimon (demon’s gate). The main kimon is called ushitora (bull tiger in the northwest). So the oni has bull’s horns and wears tiger-patterned pants.
Coming up in March! It’s time to dust off your hina dolls and display them for Hina Matsuri (Girl’s Day, Festival of the Dolls) on March 3rd. Hina dolls are traditionally displayed after risshun. Many say its good to air your Hina dolls out with February’s breezes.
Let me know if you have any Japanese traditions, customs or sayings you’d like to know more about!
kisaragi: Old name for February.
risshun: the first day of spring
setsubun: eve of the first day of spring
Oni wa Soto Fuku wa Uchi: Out with the demons, In with happiness
oni: demons, but not all of them are bad. Sometimes thought to be messengers from the gods.
fuku cha: lucky tea
Eho maki : lucky sushi rolls
yaikagashi: sardine strung on holly branch or soy bean branch
kimon: Devil’s gate, unlucky direction through which the oni come
ushitora: bull tiger, one of the kimon directions
hina matsuri: Festival of the Dolls or Girl’s Day, celebrated on March 3
Sarah is a long-time resident born and raised in Japan. She spends her time trying to raise her children, translating and making soy candles on the side. She loves the beach, paddle boarding, mountain lakes and Japanese beer :)