Monday, November 28, 2011

Setsubun: The Bean-Throwing Festival

Feb. 3rd, 2011:

Setsubun (節分) is one of Japan's unique holidays occuring every year on February 3rd.  The meaning behind the holiday is that of a spring cleaning.  While most people think of spring cleaning as the obnoxious mind-numbing work of cleaning the areas of your house that aren't touched in a year exactly because they're dirty; Setsubun happens to be a little more exciting with a spring cleaning of demons and evil spirits.

Setsubun relates to the Lunar New Year and is a holiday whose origins were Chinese.  Setsubun is the day before the start of spring and the Lunar New Year, so it was a day to remove the evil spirits and bad luck of the previous year and to allow good luck into the home for the next year.  This is done with a custom called Mamemaki (豆撒き).

Mamemaki is the act of driving out the demons and bad spirits out of the household.  This is usually done in the entertaining fashion of someone wearing a demon mask and everyone else throwing beans at them.  This is done while saying, "Oni wa soto!  Fuku wa uchi!" (鬼は外! 福は内!).  The English meaning is, "Demons out! Luck in!"  The tradition of Mamemaki was introduced in the Muromachi Period (1336-1573) and uses roasted soybeans called fukumame (福豆) or 'fortune beans.'  After throwing them at the person wearing the demon mask to get rid of the evil spirits, people also eat the 'fortune beans' for good luck in the coming year.  People eat the amount of fukumame that equals the number of years old they are plus one in order to get good luck for the next year.  We participated in this only a little, as the mess from the bean throwing seemed to be more daunting than the trouble from the demons.

Actually, this practice is not as common at homes any more and more often is done at a shrine or temple.  Some of these events are very popular due to money, candy and even prizes being thrown out into the crowds along with the beans.  Another traditional practice that is no longer commonly done (maybe thankfully) was the hanging of burning dried sardine heads outside of the home, a practice started in the 13th century as the evil spirits did not like the bad smells. [1]

However, a more popular Setsubun tradition that we did participate in is eating Setsubun's traditional food and the customs involved in eating it.  Setsubun's custom food is an uncut Makizushi called Eho-Maki (恵方巻), meaning 'lucky direction roll.'

There is a special way to eat this food in order to receive good luck for the year.  The Eho-Maki must be eaten all at one time while facing in the lucky direction for that year in silence and with eyes closed.  The direction is determined based on the zodiac animal for that year.  In 2011, the lucky direction was south-southeast.  While eating makizushi cut into slices isn't too bad, it's difficult to try and eat the whole roll uncut.  It was a fun experience and if it works like it should, we should have good luck for the next year.

Setsubun is an interesting holiday I would have had no idea about except for being here.  While I don't necessarily believe in the aspects of the holiday, it's fun to learn and participate in the holiday's traditions.  For next year especially, I have to convince my girlfriend to have us participate more in the actual bean throwing.


1. "Setsubun,"

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Shibamata's Taishakuten: Mastery Over Wood

Last time I discussed: the term of Shitamachi, and how it describes the town of Shibamata, also gave the history, background and a bit of a tour of Taishakuten temple here.  As promised, this post will be of the incredible wood carvings of Taishakuten's Taishaku-do.

Quite a sight, isn't it?  I was not prepared for a work like this to come from the temple of a small town in Tokyo not mentioned in any of the guidebooks that I've seen.  It's one of the most incredible sites I've seen in Japan.  Its carvings are on par or better than those of Tōshō-gū in Nikko.  The center panels on the walls are the main panels, 10 in all that depict parts of the story found in the Lotus Sutra, specifically regarding the Medicine King. [1]  These 10 panels were carved in the early part of the Showa Period (1926-1989) under the guidance of the 16th head priest Nissai. [2]

While entering the temple itself is free, this area costs some money (possibly 400 yen).  It's definitely worth every last one of them, as it's an incredible site, and my pictures can't do justice to what it looks and feels like being up close to the panels.  However, for those unable to make the trip, here are some detail shots of the carvings.

I'll start at the top.  These are the corner posts that lead up to the roof of the building.   Besides the dragons are a creature called Komainu (狛犬), or 'Lion Dogs' in English, that are common at shrines and also at temples which protect against evil.

The center of the walls leading up to the roof.

The rest of the walls are broken up into 10 frames, with the central panel to each frame being the important one depicting a story found in the Lotus Sutra.  However, each section also has other panels of decorative carvings around the main panel.  These other panels are all similar to each other at their respective height.  The layout to the wall sections from top to bottom is:  First is a small carving of one of the animals of the zodiac.  Next, is the carving of a Tennyo (天女).  Tennyo are the Japanese name for female Apsaras.  Apsaras are the Hindu and Buddhist female spirits of clouds and water; also known as Celestrial Maidens. [3]  After this, is the main panel and at the bottom are depictions of herons in various settings.

The first panel:

The main panel for the first section.

Detail of the first main panel.

Each panel has an explanation of the section of the Lotus Sutra that the main panel depicts.

The second panel:

The third panel:

These are the gods Fūjin (風神) and Raijin (雷神), the Japanese Shinto gods of wind and thunder respectively.

The fourth panel:

The fifth panel:

The sixth panel:

The seventh panel:

The eighth panel:

The ninth panel:

The tenth panel:

After viewing the 10 panels, there is a small staircase that leads down to the base of the building.  There are also carvings along the walls of this path.

At the bottom of the staircase is the base of Taishaku-do, which is also carved.  The panels here depict different seasons and the most impressive of the dragon carvings can be found here.

Here are some of the panels in the base of the building.  They depict different birds and plants famous for certain seasons.

Flanking both sides of these panels were the impressive dragon guardians on the base of Taishaku-do.

This is the last spot to see of the beautiful Taishaku-do.  So with one final look back

we head out of Taishakuten.  Before leaving Shibamata entirely, we decided to get something to eat first.

Shibamata's speciality Dango.  I talked about Dango last time.

While we had finished with Shibamata for the day, there are still things we weren't able to do and need to go back to see.  The first is Taishakuten's Goshuin which we weren't able to get.  Normally shrines and temples always offer Goshuin, but Taishakuten's busiest time of the year was during this time.  Their biggest celebrations are the holidays of New Year's and Setsubun, which is a Japanese holiday in the beginning of February that I will be talking about next time.  Due to this, they weren't offering the Goshuin until after Setsubun, so it's something we will have to go back to.

Another interesting activity in Shibamata is finding the 7 temples of the Seven Gods of Good Luck in Shibamata.  The Seven Gods of Good Luck are Shichi Fukujin (七福神) in Japanese.  In Shibamata, there are 7 temples that house an image of one of the Shichi Fukujin.  These are scattered about town so it makes for an interesting spiritual scavenger hunt.  It's something I look forward to doing the next time we return to Shibamata.

1. "About Shibamata Taishakuten," Taishakuten-Daikyoji.

2. Ibid.

3. Mark Schumacher, "天人,"