Samurai Dave: The Roving Ronin Report

Rambling Narrative of Travels, Thoughts, and Embellishments

Gods, Devils, and Geisha – Setsubun in Kyoto and Nara

Gods, Devils, and Geisha
Setsubun in Kyoto and Nara



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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. 

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Mame Maki (bean-throwing) with Geisha

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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). 

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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Kyogen performers

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.

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A brief snow flurry at Shogo-In Temple prior to the Setsubun exorcism

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Yamabushi were mysterious hermits credited with having supernatural power

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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.

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An elderly Yamabushi confronts a devil with courage and beans

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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.

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A Setsubun Devil Bestowing Blessings

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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.

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Archer performing archery exorcism ritual

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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. 

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A l’il devil

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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.

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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!

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Kasuga Taisha Shrine

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February 10, 2010 Posted by | buddhism, devils, Geisha Dance, japan, japanese culture, Kyoto, maiko, Nara, oni, Only in Japan, Setsubun, travel, video, vlog, weird | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Setsubun in Kyoto and Nara Video

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.

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 the 3rd, I went to 6 places starting with Yasaka Shrine for a brief mame maki by people in old court costumes then I went to Heian Shrine where they were doing Kyogen, traditional comedy plays set inbetween Noh dramas. After Heian I went to the small temple Shogo-In where they pelted 3 devils then later the devils threw beans at us! At a tiny temple near the old Imperial Palace, they had three devils arrive with weapons only to be driven away by beans and chants.

After that I took a train to Nara and got there in time to see yet another Oni demonstration. Here the devils were defeated by Bishamonten or Bishamon, Buddhist deity and Guardian of the North. It was like spiritual pro-wrestling with weapons. After that I went to Kasuga Taisha Shrine for a cool down. They had their hanging lanterns lit up for Setsubun. It was very beautiful.

Whew! After all that I was Setsubuned Out!

February 6, 2010 Posted by | japan, japanese culture, Kyoto, oni, Only in Japan, Setsubun | , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Setsubun 2009 – Sumo, J-Pop Cuties, Samurai & Fighting Monks

Setsubun 2009
Sumo, J-Pop Cuties, Samurai & Fighting Monks

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Setsubun Parade in Shimokitazawa

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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.

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Two Tengu side with the humans against Setsubun Devils

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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.

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A Long Nose Tengu

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Karasu (Crow) Tengu

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L’il 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.

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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.

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Yokozuna (sumo champion) Asashoryu and Hakuho

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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.

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Mame-maki Maid – Akihabara is close by the shrine

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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.

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Dengeki Station – Tokyo Shock Boys

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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.

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Warrior Monks – Sohei – armed with Naginata

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Shellblowing Sohei

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.

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Snoozy Sohei

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.

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Chanting Priest

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.

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Ashikaga Samurai

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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.

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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.

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February 14, 2009 Posted by | ashikaga, culture, devils, festival, japan, japanese culture, kanda myojin shrine, matsuri, oni, Only in Japan, samurai, Setsubun, tokyo, tradition, travel, video, vlog, weird, WTF, youtube | 4 Comments

Setsubun – Japanese Spring Cleaning Exorcism (Vlog Video)

https://samuraidave.wordpress.com/2007/02/06/setsubun-devils-driven-out-in-japanese-spring-ritual/
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:
http://www.sgchannel.com

February 7, 2008 Posted by | culture, demons, devils, event, festival, folklore, japan, japanese culture, life, oni, Setsubun, snow, spring, tokyo, tradition, travel, video, vlog, winter, youtube, zojo-ji | Leave a comment

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

The Drums of Tohoku – the Sansa Odori Festival

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.

 

Traditional Sansa Odori Dancer

For visitors to Tohoku in August, they have their pick of festivals to attend. With a bit of luck and transportation fiddling, they can almost do all of them or at least a good number.

 

One of the 600 Flute Players of Sansa Odori

Morioka’s Sansa Odori Festival has some stiff competition from Aomori’s famous Nebuta Matsuri with its gigantic floats to the North, Akita’s Kanto Festival with its tall, tall lantern poles to the west, and Sendai’s colorful Tanabata Festival to the south. Even many Japanese are not familiar with the Sansa Odori but the festival boasts a procession of 20,000 participants in colorful robes, 5,000 drums, and 600 flutes. Definitely nothing to sneeze at.

Power Rangers on Parade

Morioka is the capital of the Iwate Prefecture and was founded in 1597. It was a castle town administrated by the Nambu clan during the Edo Period (1603-1867). The origin of name of Iwate and the Sansa Odori are linked to the same legendary event.

Sometime in the distant past, a devil terrorized the area around Morioka. The people prayed to a local god for deliverance. The god answered their prayers and defeated the devil. He made the devil swear never to bother the people of the region again. As a sign of his pledge, the god had the devil place his hand upon one of three stones. The handprint remained and the name Iwate was born which means “stone-hand.”

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.

 

A disturbing Monkey – what nightmares are made of

Sociology aside, Morioka’s Sansa Odori is a worthy addition to anyone’s festival schedule while they are in Tohoku in August.

August 18, 2006 Posted by | Blogroll, dance, devils, entertainment, festival, folklore, iwate, japan, matsuri, morioka, oni, sansa odori, tohoku, travel, Uncategorized | 2 Comments