How do you know when spring has finally arrived? In Japan, the official start of spring is noted on calendars as Risshun (立春) and falls on or around February 4, depending on the year. To usher the change in seasons is Setsubun (節分), an auspicious event with a literal meaning of “seasonal division.”
While celebrating the transition from winter to spring in the first days of February may seem unusual (after all, February is still a very chilly month!), in Japan, the foods and tradition of Setsubun are an important part of Japanese culture.
On February 3, people across Japan engage in the ritual ofmamemaki(豆撒き | “bean scattering) in which evil from the previous year is driven away by throwingfukumame(福豆) “lucky” roasted soybeans out the door. Alternatively, some may even throw them at a person symbolizing evil spirits by wearing the mask of an Oni (鬼 | demon).
With a heartful chant of “Evil out! Good luck in!” (鬼は外! 福は内! |Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!) the act of mamemaki also wards off evil spirits bearing illness and misfortune in the current year. Afterwards, it’s customary to eat one roasted soybean for each year of one’s life.
Taking center stage during Setsubun is ehoumaki (恵方巻), a type of rolled sushi that will bring good luck when eaten while facing a certain direction, determined according to the Chinese zodiac. While ehoumaki are a rather sizable variety of makizushi known asfutomaki (太巻), it is customary that ehomaki are eaten whole with your eyes closed.
In recent years, ehoumaki have undergone a remarkable transformation. Pushing the boundaries of tradition are "dessert" ehomaki -- rolled sponge cake filled with whipped cream and fruits. Cocoa, squid ink, or bamboo charcoal is added to recreate the look of nori, the pressed and dried seaweed that covers ehoumaki.
On the other other side of the spectrum are luxury ehoumaki filled with select cuts of wagyu (Japanese beef) or covered in edible gold leaves and accented with black caviar.
Along with ehoumaki, sardines are also eaten on Setsubun as it’s believed that their distinct smell wards off evil spirits. In fact, walk along any residential area in Japan in the days leading up to February 3, and you may notice a peculiar decoration -- hiiragi iwashi (柊鰯), a wreath made from sardine heads and holly. Again, the intention is to ward off evil by preventing it from entering the home wrth the powerful smell of sardines and the sharp holly leaves.
Setsubun is the traditional way to mark the end of winter and make way for the spring bloom of plum, peach, and cherry blossoms. The foods and tradition of setsubun are a wonderway to experience Japanese culture -- will you try any of these foods on February 3?
About the author: Teni Wada appreciates the simplicity and versatility of Japanese cooking ingredients and enjoys recreating her mother-in-law's dishes. A foodie at heart, she is always on the lookout for seasonal snacks and drinks to share on Twitter (@wadateni). You can also find Teni Wada on Instagram (@wadateni) and her lifestyle blog, babykaiju.com where she documents motherhood in Japan.