The Japanese may have switched to the Gregorian calendar in 1873 during the Meiji Restoration, but they still observe the seasonality of the Lunar calendar. One such observance is Setsubun, which occurs on February 3. While Oshogatsu, or the Japanese New Year holiday, takes place on January 1 and 2, still look to Setsubun as a New Year “cleansing,” in alignment with the Lunar New Year.
What is Setsubun?
Literally meaning “season division,” Setsubun falls on the day before spring. The Japanese mark this changing of seasons with rituals that drive out evil spirits and bring health and happiness throughout the year. They drive out evil spirits, known as oni, by throwing roasted soybeans (fukumame) and yelling “Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!” (“Demons out! Fortune in!”)
After dispersing the soybeans, it’s customary to count out the number of beans that corresponds to your age—called toshinokazu—and eat them for good luck and good health throughout the year.
Another traditional Setsubun food is ehomaki, thick sushi rolls with fillings that represent good health, prosperity, and happiness. Rules about eating ehomaki (of course, there are rules!) are that you must eat the entire roll without cutting it, and you must eat it in silence while facing the lucky direction of the year. (2002’s lucky direction is north-northwest, as decreed by Toshitokujin, the goddess of good fortune and prosperity in the new year.)
If you want to improve your luck this year, you can find ehomaki here in New York. Sunrise Mart in Japan Village and Wasan Brooklyn have traditional rolls today. If you want your ehomaki with a side of bling, check out Yopparai’s gold leaf ehomaki!
Still skeptical about the season division of February 3? In East Wind Melts the Ice, Japan scholar and former geisha Liza Dalby writes, “A season has a natural life span of three months, throughout which it develops from infancy through youth to maturity . . . Spring begins in February, appropriately enough, in its infancy.” Punxsutawney Phil may have predicted six more weeks of winter, but in Japan it’s already the beginning of spring.