Samurai Dave: The Roving Ronin Report

Rambling Narrative of Travels, Thoughts, and Embellishments

Devils Make Sneak Attack on Japanese Spring Ritual – Setsubun

Sudden Snowstorm Interrupts Japanese Spring Ritual
Sneak attack by Setsubun Devils?

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Setsubun Devils enjoying the sudden snowstorm in Tokyo

A sudden snowstorm swept in silently and swiftly during the early morning hours in Tokyo this Feb. 3. Three centimeters of snow covered the capital in a fairly heavy snowfall. Train services were disrupted, traffic backed up, flights were cancelled, and at least 100 people were injured. Although snow is not unusual in Tokyo, these days, however, snow has become less common over the years. Last year it only snowed once and very briefly at that.

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Sudden snowfall in Tokyo at Senso-ji Temple

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Shrine attendants work to clear a path

What makes this snowfall particularly significant if not ominously suspicious was the date. Feb. 3 is the Japanese holiday of Setsubun, a day when Japanese seek to drive bad luck out of their homes and bring in happiness. Setsubun is a more active version of Groundhog Day where Japanese take matters into their own hands to try and bring an earlier end to winter. On the old Japanese calendar, Setsubun was considered the day before Spring – despite the real Spring being a few more weeks away.

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Praying to a snowy Buddha for perhaps warmer weather

The bad luck is represented by Oni – Japanese devils. There are many devils in Japanese folklore which can be good, bad, or neutral. The Setsubun Devils are known for being one of the bad ones. They are typically believed to be invisible intangible spirits that will inhabit places to bring misfortunate to all if they are not driven out. Their visible appearance is that of a shirtless devil with horns, shaggy hair, sharp claws and teeth, and wearing tiger pants. They come in red, green, and blue colors. If their sharp teeth and claws aren’t enough, they have heavy iron-studded clubs as well. This fierce creature is partially based on the Chinese Zodiac signs of the ox (ushi in Japanese) and tiger (tora in Japanese). Ushitora is related to “North Gate.” North was considered a very unlucky direction in Ancient China (probably because so many invaders came from that way) and this belief was adopted by the Japanese in the 8th and 9th Centuries.

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A Snow-covered Kabuki Star

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Snow at Senso-ji Temple is Asakusa, Tokyo

Along with bad luck, Setsubun Devils represent Winter and the old year too. The ceremony of driving the devils out symbolizes the ending of Winter and the coming of Spring while making everything new for the New Years. Setsubun is close to the Chinese New Years and before Japan switched to the Western calendar system, Setsubun was the day before the Chinese New Year. Japanese want their homes to be free of all the old bad feelings of the previous year. Setsubun is a bit of “out with the old; in with the new” of New Years, spring cleaning, and exorcism at the same time.

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Zojo-ji Temple in Tokyo

This Setsubun if one were inclined to see the supernatural in everything and believe in omens as people did in olden times this, they might believe the sudden snowfall to be devil-wrought. Perhaps the snow was a diabolical sneak attack by the devils in the early morning hours to thrawt the Setsubun exorcism activities at shrines and temples. In these places, beans and other such items are thrown “to” not “at” gathered crowds. This is known as mame-maki. It is believed that to catch such items, a person will have good luck all year.

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Some Ninja and a walking bag of chips prepare to do Mame-Maki at Zojo-ji

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Ninja Chips – crunchy and deadly snackfood for the assassin in all of us

Although the devils threw quite a bit of snow which caused a number of train delays, there were still crowds of people at temples and shrines, their hands outstretched looking for a bit of luck. I went to my favorite temple for mame-maki: Zojo-ji in Hamamatsucho. Zojo-ji always has a few celebrities and a sumo wrestler doing mame-maki. Their mame-maki has more than just a handful of tossed beans. I got several bags of snack food, two wash clothes, nine packets of bean, and six health bars. the health bars were dangerous! I got hit in the head twice and once right smack in my face.

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Snowfall at Kanda Myojin Shrine

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Decorations at Kanda Myojin Shrine

After that I went to Kanda Myojin Shrine where I saw two Setsubun devils prance about on a catwalk seeming to enjoy the mayhem the weather had caused. At Kanda Myojin Shrine they do a traditional mame-maki where they throw handfuls of individual beans rather than packets. The beans were rather difficult to pick out from the heavy snow flakes that were coming down. No one bothered to pick any of the beans up that had fallen on the ground. At Zojo-ji because everying is in a package, you have people going up and down for mame-maki. This makes for a writhing crowd as some people are jumping up to catch packages while others are diving down to get the fallen ones and getting bumped heads in the process.

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A Devil revels in the mayhem of an unexpectant snowstorm

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A Kimono-clad girl indulging in mame-maki at Kanda Myojin shrine

After Kanda Myojin’s mame-maki, we were lead into a room where we could choose small packages of beans, candy, and oranges. All in all I had a decent Setsubun mame-maki haul by the end of the day.

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A decent Setsubun Mame-Maki haul

In the end despite the weather, the Setsubun exorcism ritual must have worked. The next morning the sun came out and melted the snow away. Better luck next year, devils!

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February 7, 2008 - Posted by | Blogroll, culture, demons, devils, event, folklore, japan, japanese culture, life, ninja, oni, Setsubun, snow, spring, tokyo, tradition, travel, winter, zojo-ji

1 Comment »

  1. Hi Samurai Dave,

    I’m a Japanese whose been living in PEI,Canada for 17 years.
    I just happened to find your you tube video of Setsubun, because I’ll be presented ” Ogres of Setsubun” to the local school art project this month.

    Where did you get your nice mask in your video?
    I only have a plastic one, I’ve been asking my mom in Japan to find a nice one like yours.

    You did great job explaining about Japanese weird? (maybe fascinate is the better way to say) clutures, etc.

    I’ll teach Japanese cluture at the local senior collage this spring, I’m sure that your infomation will be shared in my class, if it’s o.k. with you.

    Also my Canadian husband and 16 years old son would love to watch your videos for sure.

    Thanks !

    Comment by Aravis | March 5, 2010 | Reply


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