Mar. 17, 2017 UPDATE
Celebrate Setsubun with demons, beans, and maiko!
Part 3

Let’s Get to Know Setsubun Traditions!

There are many different kinds of Setsubun traditions that have passed on through generations. But many people don’t know why do we have these Setsubun traditions. This time in part three we are going to take a look at two very different traditions, “mamemaki” bean throwing and “hiiragi iwashi”, a holly sprig with a baked sardine’s head skewered on it. If you know the history and reasons behind these traditions, you will surely enjoy Setsubun more!
1Setsubun tradition number 1: Mamemaki, or bean throwing!
This tradition has been a part of Setsubun since the ancient times. In this mamemaki tradition, a demon shows up and then people throw beans at it while shouting “Demon out! Luck in!” and thus drive the demon away.
But why do demons come out at Setsubun?
the demons
The reason for the demons at Setsubun is said to come from a Chinese New Year tradition of a man wearing a demon mask being driven out by shooting arrows at him. This tradition then passed on to Japan and became Setsubun. Setsubun is the day before the beginning of spring and it is said this is an inauspicious time when evil spirits roam about, and that the demons are a symbol of those evil spirits.
the demons
This is why the demons are driven out by throwing beans and hanging holly sprigs with a baked sardine head on them on the doors. This way we can welcome the new season in good health.
But why beans?
thought beans
Why can beans drive off demons? There are many old theories about this. According to one theory, people thought beans, rice, and other grains could ward off demons. And according to one theory, when a demon appeared at Kyoto’s Mount Kurama, they drove off the demon by throwing beans at it.
setsubun
Another theory is that the word for bean, mame, sounds like the words devil (ma) and perish (messuru) combined. Also, the beans used in bean throwing have to be roasted.
After throwing beans, let’s eat beans!
beans
Like I just told you, there are many legends about the bean throwing, but presently bean throwing is mainly celebrated as a fun event for children at home, kindergartens, and local gatherings. After throwing the beans, you have to eat one more than the age you are. So if you are 15, you need to eat 16 beans.
mamemaki
This way you will be strong and healthy for the new year. If you go to a convenience store or a supermarket around Setsubun, you will see demon masks and beans sold as a set, so why not experience this Japanese tradition first hand!
A Kyoto Setsubun Festival that is famous for bean throwing!
yasaka shirine
The Setsubun festivals of Kyoto of course also have bean throwing! If you can’t throw beans at home, you can still enjoy it at a festival! Among the Setsubun festivals, my recommendation is the Yasaka Shrine Setsubun Festival.
maiko
Maiko from all the geisha districts of Kyoto perform traditional Japanese dances and throw beans into the audience. This is a great chance to see real maiko.
2Setsubun Tradition 2: Holly sprig with a baked sardine’s head on it
The other Setsubun tradition is putting a holly sprig with a baked sardine’s head skewered on it on your front door.
Why the holly sprig and the sardine?
sardines
When you hear Setsubun, you normally think of demons and beans, not of holly sprigs and sardines. But why do sardine heads decorate the front doors of Japanese houses during Setsubun?

Since ancient times sharp and smelly things have been used to ward off evil, and the holly sprig and sardine head with the sharpness of the holly sprig and the fishy smell of the sardine are said to help drive off demons trying to enter the house.
When can you take off the sardine?
a shrine to be burned
When Setsubun ends so does the role of the sardine, but the time the holly sprig and sardine are left on the door varies between regions and even between households. In some places you can take the holly sprig and sardine off your door on the day after Setsubun, while in other places you have to keep it on your door until the next Setsubun, for a whole year! There are also rules on how you should dispose of the sprig and sardine, you can either take it to a shrine to be burned, or you can wrap it up in Japanese writing paper, purify it with salt and then throw it away.
The hiiragi iwashi,
The hiiragi iwashi, or a holly sprig and sardine head tradition has a long history, dating back to the Heian period a thousand years ago. While some young Japanese people don’t even know about this, the tradition still persists in some regions and households. If you walk between rows of Kyoto town houses, you may still see a holly sprig and sardine head on some of the front doors.
In part 3 I told you about two Setsubun traditions, bean throwing, and the holly sprig and sardine head. Bean throwing is an essential part of a Kyoto Setsubun festival, and today many people like this lively and fun event. We would like you to take part, and experience Japanese culture!
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