...from out on the branches, fifteen feet above the ground, i could see a larger horizon, i could further imagine the vastness of our many landscapes...

04 February 2010

Setsubun, the bean-throwing festival

February 二月 (nigatsu)

Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi...evil out! good luck in!

February 3rd marks the beginning of spring according to the traditional Japanese (or rather, Chinese) calendar. Japan follows multiple methods of tracking time. There is the relatively modern use of the Gregorian calendar that was adopted in 1873, and the Chinese lunisolar calendar that has been employed for centuries. Additionally, there is the measure of the imperial year which reflects the ancient and mythical traditions of the founding of the country beginning around 660 BC. Japanese time is also tracked by the ever-confusing "era name" that revolves around the current emperor's enthronement. It's 2010. Or, as my bankbook refers to it, Heisei 22. When I came here only six months ago, it was Heisei 21. My birthday is June of 1986 but it's also Showa 61, I believe, reflecting the later years of the Showa era. Confused? Try doing business here. (Actually, there are cheat sheets for reference when the Japanese nengo is needed).

Back to February 3rd. Yesterday was Setsubun, the beginning of spring, and the opportunity to cleanse your home and life of the evil oni, demons. Part of this cleansing process involves throwing beans around your home and garden, putting dried sardines on your door (the smell scares away bad spirits, and your foreign neighbors who might be the equivalent to demons), and visiting local Shinto shrines to make good wishes. Families gather and each person eats the equal number of soybeans as their age.

While I was told by my students and coworkers that this tradition is beginning to fade, it is still popular for families with younger children to visit shrines. I went to see what this bean-throwing ceremony is all about.

As I approached a major shrine in nearby Kofu city, I was confronted with nearly dozens of men wearing demon masks, devil horns, and crazy wigs. A dense line of families formed in front of the shrine and all around me stood parents thrusting their screaming, crying, and terrified children into the arms of these demon-masked men. While these "demons" were gentle and quiet, they looked rather intimidating and the thought of being thrust into their arms as a young child was a little unsettling. But to my left and right amused mothers and fathers dropped their children into the demons grasp, stepped back and snapped their digital cameras. Cheese? It seemed to me a bit like a child initiation ceremony.

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