Each year, on the third of February, harried fathers across Japan put on paper demon masks and are pelted with roasted soybeans by their children, who cry “Oni wa soto, Fuku wa uchi!” (Demon out, Fortune in!) until dad flees out the front door into the night air. Or turns on his children to teach them what comes of wasting perfectly good soybeans, although strictly speaking this is regarded as unorthodox. This is Setsubun, traditionally seen as marking the first day of spring.
You’ll see packets of soybeans and the masks prominently displayed in supermarkets in the days leading up to February 3, and it’s good fun at home, especially for younger children. With the Kansai area, Hiroshima also shares the tradition of eating a large makizushi roll while facing toward a lucky direction, which changes from year to year depending on the Chinese zodiac. You may also be surprised to see doorways adorned with the heads of sardines impaled on twigs of holly, yet another way of rendering the home unappealing to possible demonic incursion.
But temples and shrines across Japan also hold Setsubun observations, and it can make for a fun trip. There are a number of places in and around Hiroshima to see Setsubun celebrated publicly, and with the date falling on a Saturday this year, you can expect good crowds wherever you end up. It’s definitely worth a visit, as these celebrations can be colorful, loud and performed in a spirit of good humor that isn’t always on display at such places.
All of the events listed here are free of charge.
Setsubun Celebrations in Hiroshima
This shrine, not far south of Peace Memorial Park, has made something of a name for itself for trying to add a little something extra to its celebrations. At midnight on New Year’s, for instance, as we entered the Year of the Dog, two young attendants in dog costume manned a booth where dog owners could bring their pets for a lightheartedly silly, but apparently quite popular blessing.
For Setsubun, Sumiyoshi Shrine begins by introducing its demons, representing misfortunes and embarrassing public figures of the previous year. The costumes and acting can tend to the hammy, and the crowds love it. As the demons approach the shrine, they are overcome and subdued by the stench of hundreds of sardine heads being grilled by “miko” shrine maidens in white. Later, the heads are handed out to visitors to be carried home.
Finally the “mamemaki,” or bean throwing, begins in earnest. From the steps of the Shrine’s main hall, the head priest and other attendants fling packets of soybeans and other small treats to the crowd. Fun all around.
Place: Sumiyoshi Shrine, 5-10 Sumiyoshi-cho, Naka-ku, Hiroshima city. On Route 2, about a five minute walk south of Peace Memorial Park.
Time: Saturday, February 3, from 14:00
This large Shingon sect temple on the island of Miyajima holds its own Setsubun event every year. With thousands in attendance, and the sound of taiko in the air, it can feel a little frenzied, especially when the beans and lucky mochi cakes begin sailing into the grasping crowd, but it’s an unforgettable event done with all the style for which Daishoin is rightly known. If your own Chinese birth year corresponds with the current year, you’re welcome to take the stage and help with the throwing out of treats.
Place: Daishoin Temple, 210 Miyajima-cho Hatsukaichi-shi. A twenty minute walk from Miyajima’s ferry terminal, up the hill from Itsukushima Shrine. Pick up a free map at the terminal if you think you’ll have trouble finding it.
Time: Saturday, February 3, from 11:00 to 13:30
One of Hiroshima City’s most important shrines, Gokoku Shrine stands within the precincts of Hiroshima Castle in the heart of the city. The Setsubun celebration here can draw large crowds, and one of its main draws is the inclusion of traditional Japanese archery, with a shrine priest demonstrating his prowess with the bow as he lobs arrows at a target depicting the face of another of the festival’s signature beleaguered and sardine-phobic demons. Then priests clamber atop a temporary tower erected before the Shrine’s torii gate to shower the visitors with packets of beans and other assorted treats.
Place: Gokoku Shrine, 2-21 Motomachi, Naka-ku Hiroshima-city. Within the grounds of Hiroshima Castle, north of Pacela and the Rihga Royal Hotel downtown.
Time: Saturday, February 3, from 15:30 to 16:30