Summertime is ghost-time in Japan. It’s time to tell scary stories in order combat the summer’s heat with the cold chill that only ghost stories can bring.
This story is a version of the Ogre of Rashomon as the story is named in Yei Theodora Ozaki’s Japanese Fairy Tales. I however refer to the titular creature as a demon based on the Japanese word “oni” which is demon/devil.
Rashomon is a gate that once stood in Kyoto that lapsed into disrepair and became a place of ill repute. According to legend a demon took up residence there and snatched up passer-bys. Eventually it bit off more than it could chew when it tried to grab a samurai.
The photos were taken by me of the temple gate of Zojo-ji Temple in Tokyo, a shot of a float from the Nebuta festival of Aomori showing a samurai fighting a demon (Raiko and Shuten-doji), and a depiction of the story on a float at the Neputa Festival in Hirosaki, Aomori Prefecture. The other images are 19th Century woodblock (ukiyoe) prints.
Check out my other ghost stories:
Gods, Devils, and Geisha
Setsubun in Kyoto and Nara
A Devil arrives with sword and torch at a Buddhist Temple in Kyoto
Setsubun (Feb 3rd) is a Japanese Spring ritual where Japanese drive bad luck in the form of Oni (devils) out of their homes with a handful of tossed beans. At temples and shrines, they do mame maki which is throwing beans and other things to gathered crowds.
Mame Maki (bean-throwing) with Geisha
Setsubun is one of my favorite Japanese holidays and I’ve been celebrating it for the past 6 years or more. In the past I always celebrated it at temples and shrines in or around Tokyo. This year I headed for Kyoto taking in Nara in the evening as well. I started Setsubun on the 2nd with some Geisha mame maki (geisha were throwing beans that is, not that they were throwing geisha).
On February 2nd, while Americans watch groundhogs watching for their shadows, Japanese, or at least those in Kyoto, watch Geisha throw beans to gathered crowds at Yasaka Shrine. The Geisha actually are maiko who are Geisha apprentices. There were two groups of maiko, one from the Pontocho district and the other from the Miyagawacho district. Before doing mame maki they graced us with a brief dance performance – a rare treat.
In the evening I went to Mibu-dera, a temple famous for its association with the Shinsengumi, a militaristic police group for the old Shogunate in the mid-19th Century, and for kyogen plays. Kyogen is type of comical play which was often performed as intermission pieces of more serious Noh dramas. Unfortunately for the visitor, no photography or video making was allowed. This was either to protect the performance or to keep away the distraction of camera shutters clicking, video cameras beeping, and those idiots who don’t know how to turn off the flash on their pocket cameras.
Setsubun Devils are distinguishable by their horns and fetching tiger pants
Mibu-dera put on a special Setsubun kyogen for the occasion about a widow who encounters a Setsubun devil. The widow is visited by a devil in the guise of a traveler. He has a magic hammer which he makes an expensive kimono for himself and the widow. They begin drinking sake and the devil drinking too much falls asleep. The widow gets greedy and decides to make off with the hammer and kimono. As she strips away the “traveler’s” kimono she sees his true self and screams. The devil awakes and comes after her. Panicked, the widow reaches for the first thing to defend herself and throws it at the devil. What she threw at him was dried soybeans, the traditional beans of Setsubun. Devils hate beans for some reason and so the widow was able to drive the devil away. It was easy to understand the story despite my limited Japanese because it was all done through pantomime.
Setsubun Devils often wield huge iron-studded clubs
On the next day, Setsubun proper, I went to six places starting with Yasaka Shrine for a brief mame maki by people in old court costumes from the Heian Era (794-1192). The men wore a kariginu, the everyday wear of a court noble, which would later become the formal wear of the samurai in later ages. The women wore the costume of a Shirabyoshi dancer. Shirabyoshi were female dancers who wore men’s clothing and performed slow rhythmic dances that influenced later Noh performers. The Shirabyoshi tradition began in 12th Century, the last century of the Heian Period and until 1868 the last century in which governmental power would reside within the Imperial Court.
Mame Maki participants wearing old court costumes
From Yasaka, I made use of my all day bus pass and leapt onto a northbound bus to Heian Shrine. Heian Shrine was built just over a hundred years ago as a replica of the old Imperial Palace. There I got a snatch of a Kyogen performance which thankfully allowed photography and video. What caught my attention was that one of the performers was female. Traditionally Kyogen like Kabuki and Noh was performed solely by males including the female roles. As this was a festival performance perhaps the rules were relaxed.
From Heian Shrine I went to Shogo-In, a temple which normally lies off of the tourist trail as there is not much to lend itself to fame amongst so many other temples. However, this small temple puts on one of the more interesting Setsubun rituals. The priests dress as Yamabushi, which are a type of ascetic hermit who are known for often living in the mountains following a creed which is a blend of Buddhism and the native Shintoism.
A brief snow flurry at Shogo-In Temple prior to the Setsubun exorcism
Yamabushi were mysterious hermits credited with having supernatural power
Yamabushi playing seashell horn
After a lengthy but catchy chanting ritual, three devils arrived wielding their massive iron-studded clubs. They were quickly subdued by bean-throwing Yamabushi and tamed into submission. Later the devils participated in mami maki by throwing the beans at us instead.
An elderly Yamabushi confronts a devil with courage and beans
Setsubun Devil throwing beans rather than having them thrown at him
At another small temple Rozan-ji, a temple far too small to accommodate the number of visitors that Setsubun brings, three devils arrived bearing weapons while another gave blessings to visitors.
A Setsubun Devil Bestowing Blessings
The weapon-bearing devils danced around before going into the temple. An archer came out sometime later to do a kind of archery exorcism ritual in which he shot untipped arrows in the four cardinal directions. Soon after the three devils emerged from the temple sans their weapons. They were staggering about reeling from the effects of the Setsubun exorcism rituals. After that mame maki was done and here they threw hard-shelled sweets and small mochi rice cakes.
Archer performing archery exorcism ritual
A Devil going down for the count
After that I took a train to Nara and got there in time to see yet another Setsubun exorcism demonstration in the evening. Nara was the first capital of Japan from 710-784. At Kofuku-ji Temple another lengthy exorcism ritual took place while the crowd shifted restlessly waiting for the main event namely the devils. The crowd was silently shouting in their minds “Get on with it! Bring on the Devils!” as the priests droned on. Finally after an eternity of waiting, the devils arrived both big and small. They pranced about the stage under the night sky waving torches and weapons.
A l’il devil
Here the devils were apparently too tough to be defeated by just mere beans. At Kofuku-ji, they brought out the big guns in the form of Bishamonten or Bishamon, a Buddhist deity and Guardian of the North. Bishamon battles all kinds of evils. North is the direction where Japanese traditionally believe evils come from so the Northern Guardian has to be pretty stout to deal with them. Bishamon took on all the devils by himself. It was like spiritual pro-wrestling with (plastic) weapons.
Bishamon – the Muhammad Ali of Buddhist Devil Fighters
After that I went to Kasuga Taisha Shrine for a cool down. The shrine’s Setsubun was far more low-key. No gods, devils, geisha, mountain priests, or grasping hands for flying beans. They just had lanterns lit up for the night. It was very beautiful and serene. Whew! After all that I was Setsubuned Out!
Kasuga Taisha Shrine
In Old Japan, ghost stories were a form of old fashion all natural air conditioning designed to induce cold shivers on hot summer nights.
Here I re-tell an old story about a samurai who risks his life for a wager to prove his courage by crossing a bridge haunted by a demon.
The story can be found in “Japanese Tales” an anthology of old stories compiled by Royall Tyler.
Japanese Devils Scare the Laziness out of Kids
Namahage – Japanese Devils with a Strong Work Ethic
Namahage – the bane of lazy children
“Twas the night before my skinning…”
Imagine you were a young child living in the Northwestern part of Japan on the small peninsula of Oga. It’s the holiday season and instead of waiting eagerly for fat jolly old elf with a sack full of toys to bring you presents, you’re dreading the arrival of a bunch of hairy scary devils with a handful of butcher knives who threaten to peel off your skin if you’ve have been lazy all year. It makes the lump of coal Santa Claus leaves with naughty children pale in comparison. If you can get your head around that, perhaps you can understand this bizarre bit of psychological child abuse known as the Namahage.
Part of the Oga Welcoming Committee
Namahage come in a variety of shapes and colors throughout Oga
The Namahage are Japanese devils who visit villages on the Oga peninsula every New Year’s Eve. They wear straw coats, carry large kitchen knives, and wooden buckets. They come in the night down from their mountain homes howling and waving torches. The Namahage burst into homes stomping about looking for lazy children. If the children are hiding, the Namahage will flush them out threatening to take them into the mountains.
Namahage are your childhood nightmares in the flesh
Namahage stomps around the house looking for hiding children
The head of the household will try to appease the devils with a specially prepared meal accompanied with sake. He assures them that no one has been lazy in his household. Then the Namahage seeing all from their mountaintop look into their secret book which records the doings of every household and challenge that statement. The head of the household again promises that all have been obedient and hard-working and pleads with the devils not to take his wife and children into the mountains. It takes considerable effort to control these devils with their strong work-ethic.
Hard Negotiations with Namahage
As the negotiations drag on, the head of the household offers more sake and along with mochi – rice cake – while begging that his wife and child not be taken away. Eventually the Namahage relent placated by the offerings and the sincerity of the head of the household. They bless the next year’s harvest and wish good health to all the members of the household. As the Namahage leave, they promise (or rather threaten) to return next year.
Devils Coming Thru!
Namahage – Oga’s unofficial ambassador
For children the whole experience can be rather nerve-wracking. When the Namahage arrive they immediately seek out any hiding children and make as though they will take off with them right then and there. The parents or grandparents make a show of trying to save their child without much luck and only through careful negotiation amply accompanied with sake are they successful. Thus children learn gratitude for being saved from drudgery of working in the mountains for the harsh Namahage.
In the old days, Namahage terrorized both lazy children and wives
In olden times, communities in areas such as Oga could not afford the luxury of laziness especially with the winters as long and harsh as they are. It’s not difficult to understand why community leaders would have gone to such efforts to instill a strong work ethic in their youth. Today the ritual is traditional. In the past it was a more serious matter – teaching the youth to work hard for their community’s survival and their own.
Namahage have a strong work ethic
The original legend runs that the Namahage Devils arrived from China and caused the people of Oga much trouble. A deal was struck between the people and the Namahage that if the Namahage could build a thousand-step staircase for the main shrine in a single night, the people would supply them with a young woman every year; but if they failed, they would leave the people alone. The Namahage readily agreed and set to work.
Namahage working hard to win their wager
The lusty devils were so efficient that by the end of the night they had only one stone left to lay before dawn even hinted in the sky. One fast-thinking person however came to the rescue and mimicked the cry of a rooster thus signaling that dawn had arrived. The Namahage, believing they had lost, left and went into the mountains but they return every year for their pound of flesh.
A Namahage hears a mimicked rooster and thinks they have lost
The Namahage go into the mountains but promise to return once a year
There are several theories as to the origins of the Namahage. One theory is that Namahage are derived from an ancient mountain deity. There are many native traditions of gods coming for a visit – though not quite with the fanfare of the Namahage. Another theory is that they are based on Yamabushi – shinto priest who leaved hermit-like existence in the mountain.
Yamabushi – Shinto Hermit Priest – one suspect for the Namahage origin
Yet another theory hints that the Namahage might be based on shipwrecked sailors from Europe most likely Russia. Given the age of festival, it could be that they were those hardy explorers, the Vikings. It would explain the trouble they caused probably in foraging raids and the bet with the supply of woman.
Shipwreck Foriegners might be another possible origin of the Namahage
The name “namahage” comes from the local dialect. “Nama” refers to the patch of skin that forms on the skin if someone sits too long at the fire ie being lazy. “Hage” means to scrap away the mark. This is why the Namahage carry their large knives to scrape away the laziness of their victims.
Namahage carry large knives to scrape the laziness from victims
For travelers, New Years is not a good time to see Namahage as it’s primarily a private affair. Participating households don’t want a bunch of camera-flashing tourists to ruin the effect of scaring their kids straight. Some of the local hotels arrange Namahage visitations but given it’s the New Years the whole thing can be rather pricey. Fortunately for the Namahage-seeker, there is the Namahage Museum in Oga where year-round, they can see a performance of the New Years’ event sans the crying children.
Making a Namahage Mask at the Namahage Museum
Visitors can become a Namahage at the Namahage Museum
In February, there is the Sedo Matsuri or simply the Namahage Festival which takes place next to the Namahage Museum in Oga. In the evening several men come down a hillside wearing straw coats. Near the shrine, two Shinto priests bless Namahage masks then precede to mask the men. Once they are all masked, they begin stomping and howling. Thus the Namahage are born.
A little while later they come down again with blazing torches. While young children cry and hide, others chase after the Namahage seeking to grasp a straw from their coats for good luck. Some of the Namahage dance, some of them play Taiko drums, and some of those of softer disposition play Rock, Paper, Scissors with children brave enough to match wit and hand with the Namahage.
Namahage playing Rock, Paper, Scissors
At the end of the festival, a priest presents an offering of mochi – rice cake – burnt black on a fire. The Namahage grudgingly accept the offering then return to their mountain lair. But everyone knows the Namahage keep watch on them and will be back without fail next year.
Priest offering mochi to Namahage
The Namahage promise/threaten to return next year
Sumo, J-Pop Cuties, Samurai & Fighting Monks
A Japanese Setsubun Devil Preparing for his Annual Exorcism
Setsubun is one of my favorite Japanese traditions. It’s the day that Japanese seek to drive bad luck or evil out of their homes by throwing beans.The bad luck is personified as devils known as Oni. Oni apparently have an acute allergy to beans which causes them to go blind. People throw beans and eat them to effectively ward off the evil of the dreaded Oni.
Mame-maki – throwing beans and other items at a shrine in Tokyo
At temples and shrines, crowds gather to have beans thrown to them. This is known as mame-maki. Priests and local dignitaries sometimes celebrities will throw beans and other items which people try to catch for good luck.
Prayer Sticks burned at a Tokyo Temple in order to convey their messages Heavenward on Setsubun
I’ve been going to temples and shrines in and around Tokyo for the last four or five years to celebrate Setsubun. I always take the day off if I am scheduled to work that day. I usually try to hit 2-3 places for Setsubun festivities. This year I was able to squeeze in four Setsubun ceremonies though I actually started my Setsubun a little early.
Setsubun Parade in Shimokitazawa
Long Nose Goblin (Tengu) Float
On January 31st, I went to the small neighborhood of Shimokitazawa in western Tokyo. There they have their Setsubun celebration on the weekend before Setsubun (Setsubun is always Feb. 3rd). Leading the procession is long nose goblin known as Tengu. The Tengu is a mythical creature known for being both mischievous and kind. Some of them trained the hero Minamoto-no-Yoshitsune on Mt. Kurama near Kyoto almost a thousand years ago.
Two Tengu side with the humans against Setsubun Devils
Tengu and Company
The Tengu is the guardian spirit for the local temple in Shimokitazawa. With him is a Karasu Tengu or Crow Tengu. This Tengu has the face of a crow and follows the long nose Tengu. Now at first glance, one might think these two were part of the hoary hordes of devils to be chased away but perhaps the Tengu seeing which way the wind was blowing decided to align themselves with the humans on Setsubun.
A Long Nose Tengu
Karasu (Crow) Tengu
On the day of Setsubun itself, I started the day early around 9 am heading an hour east of Tokyo to the city of Narita. Narita has one of the largest Setsubun celebrations in Japan. It certainly was the most crowded Setsubun event I had ever attended. A large number of police were there to guide the crowd. Due to the press of people, the police issued a warning to people not to reach for beans that fell to the ground for fear injuries would result.
Naritasan Shinshoji Temple
One of the main reasons that Narita draws such a large crowd is their celebrity power. Narita brings out the Yokozuna – sumo champion – and some of the big name celebrities at the height of their popularity. This year, several of the actors of this year’s samurai drama were in attendance throwing beans. One of them was former Prime Minister Koizumi’s son.
Yokozuna (sumo champion) Asashoryu and Hakuho
Yokozuna Asashoryu preparing to throw some beans
I was too far in the back of the crowd to be in any danger of being hit in the face by a strong-armed sumo wrestler (like I was last year) or get crushed by bean-catching crowds. Once the madness had passed, I left Narita and headed back into Tokyo; this time to Kanda Myojin Shrine. I went there last year during a sudden snow storm which I assumed was the work of Setsubun devils since they also represent Winter. This year, it was unseasonably warm – perhaps the devils have switched their tactics and are now promoting Global Warming.
Mame-maki Maid – Akihabara is close by the shrine
Ancient Imperial Guards
At Myojin Shrine there were also some celebrities such as Dengeki Network and AKB48. Dengeki Network known in English as Tokyo Shock Boys is a comedy stunt troupe known for their extreme and crude acts like lighting fire-crackers in their posterior. AKB48 is a dance idol group based in Tokyo’s electronic and anime mecca, Akihabara. They’re popular with Akihabara types.
Dengeki Station – Tokyo Shock Boys
AKB48 – Akihabara’s Jailbait Dance Troupe
Although I got hit in the head with an orange, I still managed to catch a few chocolates at this mame-maki. Afterwards, I headed west towards Nakano in Western Tokyo. Here at a small temple called Hosen-ji I saw once again the small parade of warrior monks which I had first seen several years ago.
Warrior Monks – Sohei – armed with Naginata
Warrior monks known as sohei were once a troublesome class of Buddhist Priests who used to dispense Buddha’s Blessings with the sharp edge of a naginata. They quarreled amongst themselves, with the Imperial Court, and with local Daimyo (warlords). They needled one daimyo so much that he finally decided that enough was enough and promptly set out to burn them out – literally. This was Oda Nobunaga one of the great unifiers of premodern Japan and the site of his vengeance was Enryaku-ji Temple on Mt. Hiei north of Kyoto. In 1571, he razed many of the temples there, killing and burning to death several thousand priests and their families.
The sohei of Hosen-ji were of milder disposition being that most had seen far too many Setsubun to be of any threat to anyone. After the aging sohei were seated, a bonfire was lit and prayer sticks were burnt in order to convey their messages heavenward.
I did not stick around for the mame-maki session as I had one more place to visit but I did get a spot of sake and an orange for my troubles. I then headed swiftly northwards to the town on Ashikaga in Tochigi Prefecture which is almost two hours outside of Tokyo.
Ashikaga is a small town that was the hometown of the ancestors of the Ashikaga Shoguns (1336-1573). To celebrate Setsubun and their town’s past, Ashikaga puts on a procession of armored samurai. The armor covers the time period of the 12th Century to the beginning of the 17th Century, a time when Japan entered a period of peace known as the Edo Era when armor was no longer a necessity.
Minamoto-no-Yoshitsune – hero of the Gempei War (1159-1189)
At the local temple, the armored samurai performed a short mame-maki. Afterwards, certain samurai went around back to fire their old-style guns. From the mid-16th Century when guns were first introduced to Japan by Portuguese traders to the early 17th Century, guns played a major role in samurai warfare. When the shooting samurai had fired their last shot, a bonfire was lit and the all the samurai did a rallying cry. Then the ceremony concluded and with that my long Setsubun finally drew to a close at 9 o’clock at night – but I still had a long train ride back home! The devils of bad luck and winter had been defeated but the devils of sleep were demanding their due and there weren’t enough beans to drive them away.
Setsubun is February 3rd and it’s kind of like Groundhog Day, New Years, and Halloween all rolled up into one. It’s a day where Japanese seek to drive Oni or Devils from their homes by throwing beans at them. Oni don’t like beans – makes them go blind apparently.
Also many temples and shrines have mami-maki which is where people throw beans and other items at gathered crowds. To catch these items is to bring you good luck all year.
This Setsubun a sudden snowstorm struck in Tokyo. A rather ominious sign as the Setsubun is a Spring Ritual and exorcising the devils is like driving Winter out. I think it was a sneak attack by the Setsubun Devils myself. However the ritual must have worked because the next morning the sun was out.
Background music by Super Girl Juice:
Sneak attack by Setsubun Devils?
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.
Sudden snowfall in Tokyo at Senso-ji Temple
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.
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.
A Snow-covered Kabuki Star
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.
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.
Some Ninja and a walking bag of chips prepare to do Mame-Maki at Zojo-ji
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.
Snowfall at Kanda Myojin Shrine
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.
A Devil revels in the mayhem of an unexpectant snowstorm
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.
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!
The above video I just sent to Current TV (current tv). It’s up for votes to get picked for TV so if you feel generous, please register and vote for my pod/video at:
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The theme music is Jack’s Surf Shop by the exotic ones
Japanese Drive Out Devils in Spring Ritual
Setsubun Festival celebrated with a fanfare of bean-throwing exorcisms
A pair of Japanese Devils terrorize kindergarteners
Once again devils have been driven forth from the homes and workplaces of the Japanese with a hand-full of tossed beans in the age-old rite known as Setsubun. Setsubun, which occurs on February 3, is kind of like Halloween, New Year’s, and Groundhog Day all wrapped into one with a little bit of Christmas and Madri Gras tossed in.
Grasping hands reach for tossed packs of beans at Zojo-ji Temple in Tokyo
Originally, before the adoption of the Western Calendar, Setsubun was the day before the lunar New Year’s. Now it falls coincidentally one day after America’s Groundhog Day. On Feb. 2 Americans, in complete disregard for meteorological science, put their faith for the ending of winter’s cold weather in the auguries of a groundhog’s reaction to its shadow. If it sees its shadow, supposedly six more weeks of winter will follow but if not, spring will come early.
A Priest blessing objects before a sacred fire
Setsubun is similar to Groundhog Day, without the groundhog and yet with the same desire of hastening an end to winter. Setsubun is seen as the beginning of spring despite February being the coldest month. Wishful thinking or grim humor could perhaps best describe the motives behind the Groundhog Day and Setsubun rituals.
Sumo Wrestler Tossing Beans Instead Of Opponents
In modern times, we tend to forget how terrible winter could truly be in a time before convenience stores, central heating, and winter fashion. Today, winter means skiing, snowboarding, snowball fights, knee-high boots, and days off from school and work. In the past long winters could mean unbearable cold, famine, sickness, and death. It’s no wonder that these spring rituals were so concerned with bringing winter to a close as soon as possible.
A Fiercesome Oni – Japanese Devil
With Japan’s version of Groundhog Day, the Japanese don’t have to worry over the precarious nature of an oversized skittish rodent to determine whether winter will end or not. It’s not the shadows of groundhogs that concern the Japanese. It’s the devils infesting their homes that they are worried about. Instead of calling upon the professional services of an exorcist, however, the Japanese take matters into their own hands.
Buddhist Priests herald the arrival of the brave Demon-quellers
Japanese purify their homes and drive out any unwelcome invisible devils by tossing beans and shouting: “Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!” (“Devils out! Good luck in!”). This tradition comes from a Buddhist priest who over 1,000 years ago exorcised devils using beans. Some beliefs say that beans will make the devils go blind, so they flee before the beans hit them.
The brave Demon-quellers ready to do battle with the dreaded Oni devils
Japanese devils, called oni, are a mix of indigenous spirits and old supernatural immigrants who came over with the introduction of Buddhism in the 6th Century AD. Unlike devils of Christian belief, who are entirely evil, Japanese devils can be both good or bad depending on their individual nature or the situation. Following the acceptance of Buddhism, oni devils became mainly associated with causing harm to humans through illnesses and natural disasters. More benevolent devils became the protectors of Buddhist institutions.
The physical appearance of a typical Japanese demon is that of a large human-shaped creature with a mass of unruly dark hair from which two horns project. They have the requisite horrendously sharp teeth and claws that all monsters must have. Sometimes oni have extra eyes, fingers, or arms. Their skin color varies in hue with red, blue, and green being the most popular. The standard accoutrement of an oni is a cruel-looking iron-studded club of enormous proportions.
Children vanquishing an oncoming red devil with beans
Oni are powerful creatures, often possessing an impressive array of magical powers. They can change their shapes, control the weather, or summon up fire, and yet a handful of roasted soybeans tossed in their direction can drive them off. If only the Catholic Church knew of this. Their exorcism rituals could be considerably simplified. The movie “The Exorcist” would have been over before the opening title sequence finished had someone just thrown some beans at Linda Blair the moment her voice started sounding funny. However, perhaps it is only Japanese demons who have this allergy to beans.
Devils easily disposed of with one quick toss
In olden days either beans were not effective or no one knew about them, because there are many stories of oni terrorizing the countryside, killing and looting, and making off with beautiful maidens. They could only be bested by the bravest of heroes. Nowadays, they are symbolically and rather degradedly driven off by packs of bean-throwing kindergarten children. How the mighty have fallen!
His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, enjoying throwing bean packets on Setsubun
This ritual of humiliation is carried out at a number of temples on February 3rd. Afterwards comes the mame-maki – the bean-throwing ceremony in which large crowds of people will gather to receive beans thrown at them by priests, sumo wrestlers and celebrities. Things get a bit hectic as normally stoic Japanese go wild grasping for beans and other cheap trinkets. It’s similar to the madness that consumes people at Madri Gras in New Orleans when they risk life and limb and possible life-term sentences for murder as they scramble to recover beads that cost less than a dollar thrown from festival floats.
Mame-Maki: bean-throwing ceremony at Kishbyojin Temple
In Tokyo, the largest crowds of bean-seekers head to Senso-ji Temple in Asakusa and Zojo-ji Temple in Hamamatsucho. I went to Zojo-ji one year and watched sumo wrestlers and TV celebrities pelt the crowds with beans, candy, and washcloths. I saw on old lady get beaned in the head with a pack of beans thrown by a muscle-bound sumo wrestler. She quickly recovered, though, and bowled over a younger salary man in order to grab another pack of beans that landed by his feet. I came off much better than she as I only got hit in the head with a rolled-up washcloth. Had it been an orange like they throw at some temples, I might been sent into a coma and gone down under a swarm of bean-grabbing pensioners.
Dangerous Mame-maki with oranges
In Shimokitazawa in western Tokyo, a small Setsubun procession is made not on Feb. 3rd but on the roving day before the lunar Chinese New Year’s. The long-nose Japanese goblin, the Tengu, is given the honor of throwing beans to drive away devils. The Tengu goblin is pulled along in a type human-drawn chariot. With him march the seven Japanese gods of luck.
A few of Japan’s Seven Gods of Luck accompany a Tengu in his Devil-quelling mission
In another part of west Tokyo at Hosen-ji Temple in Nakano, Buddhist priest dress up as warrior monks from the Sengoku (Warring States) Period (15th – 16th Century). In sharp contrast to the peaceful doctrines of Buddhism, Japanese warrior monks donned armor and carried the deadly naginata into battle against rival sects and secular warlords.
Warrior monks at a Setsubun Ritual who were often devils in their own right in the past
They proved to be more trouble to Japan than the devils. They became such a nuisance that in 1571, the great warlord Oda Nobunaga viciously destroyed one of the greatest strongholds of warrior monks at Enryakuji on Mt. Hiei, north of Kyoto. Nakano’s modern “warrior monks” are a little too long-in-the-tooth to cause much of a nuisance to anyone. Instead of throwing spears, they throw beans, oranges, and peanuts to the gathered assembly.
Some Japanese Celebrities throwing beans at Zojo-ji Temple
In last year’s record-setting winter of low temperatures and heavy snowfall, the Spring ritual of Setsubun did not seem to have had much effect on the devils of winter. When the sun had set that day, the temperatures plunged drastically. A few days later it snowed again in Tokyo. Also in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania where every Groundhog Day people gather to watch the actions of Phil, the town’s famous Groundhog weather forecaster, the prediction was for six more weeks of winter. This year with the warm temperatures, it probably comes as no surprise that Phil predicted an early Spring.
A Demonic Bag of Chips looks on in amusement as his bean-allergic brethern flee
The most important part of Setsubun is a reminder to eat healthy to thus ensure yourself of a life that is long, healthy, and hopefully Devil-free!
Longnosed Tengu goblin driving away devils
Strong Foes with an Achilles’ Heel to Health Food
Vampires and Devils beaten by vegetables
Japanese devils despite all their strength, meanness, and magical abilities seem to be easy pushovers if all that it takes is a couple of tossed beans to get rid of them. However, they are not alone in the supernatural world of night terrors with such an odd weakness. Further down the power scale but still a threat in its own right is the vampire of Western folklore. These undead dangers possess superhuman strength, unnaturally prolonged lives, the ability to change shape from bat to mist, and the power to hypnotize their victims before they drain them of their precious life blood. Vampires are notoriously difficult to kill and yet one clove of garlic will send these unholy terrors packing.
If one looks at the situation from both a folklore and medical point of view, one can that the devils and vampires represent not only bad luck but also bad health. Vampires with their pale skin and thirst for blood represent a kind of blood disease. Eating garlic promotes healthy blood circulation so garlic-eaters will never have to worry about becoming a vampire. With Japanese devils, beans represent good health and life. As part of the Setsubun ritual, people eat the number of beans that correspond to their age. Following these superstitious traditions, a person is actually ensuring their health and long life.
Morioka’s Sansa Odori Festival rolls out the Drums
A Devil’s Flight – A City’s Delight
Young Girls Give a Drum Demonstration before the Station
Tohoku – the northern region of mainland Japan – likes its summer festivals (matsuri). The whole area in the first week of August seems to erupt with big and grandiose festivals – each one apparently trying to outdo each other in extravagance. It’s like a keeping up with the Joneses (or the Tanakas) affair with each city vying for attention and visitors.
The people were so relieved that they put on a festival – the Sansa Odori – to celebrate the devil’s departure. Sansa Odori is held throughout the first week of August. During the day near the train station several dance demonstrations are held. In the evening a long procession is made involving 20,000 people in various colorful attire. Some are dancing, others are playing the flute, but the largest contingent is the drummers.
The drummers carry a miniature taiko drum on their chest with the drum heads facing left and right. The drummers range in ages from grandmothers to toddlers. One would fear that the noise of all these drums would make a horrendous un-rhythmic catastrophe of music. Fortunately, the procession had a pleasant rhythm that was unbroken and quite catchy.
The participants chant “Sansa! Sansa!” and something like “Sakkora Cholwa Yasse” which most Japanese can’t even understand. The phrase the participants chant is a linguistic soup mix of the local dialect and old Japanese with a bit of Emishi for flavoring. The Emishi were the original inhabitants of the Iwate area before they were absorbed after much effort a thousand years ago.
I was passing through Iwate on my way to Aomori and the Nebuta Festival. I knew nothing about the Sansa Odori when I arrive in Morioka. When I saw pretty young girls in flowing dresses near the station, I thought to myself that this bore further investigation. I was not disappointed.
In the evening I watched a two hour long parade of drumming, dancing, and fluting(?). Along with the pretty girls, I saw a number of unique displays of individuality in the shape of Power Rangers, walking vegetables, a group of monkeys that seemed to have materialized from some drug-induced nightmare, and some very unconvincing drag queens.
She’s not a natural blonde but she drums well
I heard from witnesses that the Sansa Odori in the past was more uniform in appearance but is now evolving (some say de-evolving) as Japanese society itself changes with the times.
Sociology aside, Morioka’s Sansa Odori is a worthy addition to anyone’s festival schedule while they are in Tohoku in August.
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- Sumo – Hakuho vs Harumafuji at Outdoor Sumo Event at Yasukuni Shrine
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- Japanese St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Harajuku, Tokyo
- Japanese Devils Beat You For Good Luck on Setsubun
- Wakakusayama Yaki – Japanese Mountain Fire Festival in Nara
- Giant Japanese Snake Festival
- Happy New Years 2013 From Tokyo!!!
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