Wednesday, February 3, 2010


Fed up with icy roads and the local idiots driving on them? Ready to stick your head in an oven if the kids have one more snow day? Perhaps you should consider moving to Japan because today's Setsubun celebration drove the last nail into Old Man Winter's frigid coffin. Tomorrow is offically the first day of spring.

Setsubun, February 3rd, marks the last day of the "old" year by ritualistically banishing winter's demons (Oni) while simultaneously welcoming the new, green shoots of good luck that appear in springtime. In ancient times, this occasion acted in the same manner as our New Year's Eve. Instead of blowing horns and setting off fireworks to scare off the bad spirits, the Japanese throw roasted soy beans at them.

Don't ask me why soy beans are frightening. I just don't know.

Although I blogged about this festival's significance last year (see the post, Demons Out...Luck In from last February), today I had the good fortune of seeing the bean throwing (Mamemaki) ritual acted out in a humble shrine by the sea in Hayama.

My friend Hiranosan, his wife Hirokosan and I zoomed into the sand parking lot about two minutes before the ceremony started. We threw our coins into the box in front of the shrine's entrance, pulled the thick rope to ring the bell (in case the gods were unaware of our presence), clapped our hands twice and said a small prayer. We took our shoes off, lined them up (toes pointing out, of course) and promptly proceeded to freeze our tootsies off in the open-aired sanctuary.

Except for the subzero temperature "inside", the ceremony reminded me of Ash Wednesday services in the Episcopal Church--a comforting blend of solemnity and community. A head priest and his assistant blessed the congregation and chanted mysterious words, as mothers with babies arrived late and out of breath, standing in the back in case a quick exit might be needed. We stood up, we sat down. We bowed our heads. An older gentleman carefully brought the offering, a small tree branch adorned with strips of Shinto paper, to the altar.

The toddlers became restless. Although I couldn't understand the words, I could "hear" their little voices pestering their mothers with questions and complaints: "Mama, why does that man have a funny hat?", "What is he saying?", and/or, perhaps, "I can't feel my flippin' feet." (I have a lot in common with Japanese babies.)

They settled down quickly as the priest blessed the beans and started to scatter them around the sanctuary, starting in the northwest corner--the most unlucky compass point since apparently the Oni like to roll in from that direction. I could hear the terrifying legumes ping off the straw tatami mats and under the sanctuary furniture. (I wondered if, like errant strands of Easter grass, the shrine keepers would still be finding them months later in unexpected places.)

The whole experience was over before I knew it. The head priest thanked his congregants for coming. Retired folk and young mothers filed out of the shrine, replacing their shoes and hats, stamping some life back into their frozen limbs and silently going back to whatever they were up to before this short break from mundane living.

Me, I dropped my friends off at their tennis club and went to fill the car...back to the "normal" life where gas costs a fortune and beans don't have the power to strike fear in the hearts of evil-doers.

But, as always, it was fun spending a little time with a community that I don't oftentimes understand but still love to pieces.

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