You now know (I hope so) the thread that links spring season with demons and soybeans, the time is ripe to actually witness the Setsubun celebrations. Since you can’t do it physically at the moment (of course), allow me to take you through my experience of Setsubun no Hi in Tokyo. (Disclaimer: The simulation of the entire episode depends partly on the reader’s imaginative abilities)
Let’s sail off together on the exhilarating voyage of spring, festivities, solo travel and being a “gaijin”!
*Gaijin=a term used to refer to foreigners in Japanese
Since the coronavirus had started gaining a foothold in late January in Japan, I thought it would be better to skip the celebrations at Asakusa or Zozoji temple. So, after some research, I decided to visit the Ookunitama Shrine celebrations in Fuchu – a little-known district in Tokyo. (Yes, I know I’m eccentric.)
On the morning of Feb 3, I arrived at the Fuchu station and broke into a short walk towards the shrine. The mood was quite festive, with little stalls lined up on the path leading to the shrine.
Since I had reached pretty early (I’m very Japanese in this regard), I took my time to admire the scenery, observe fellow festival-goers and talk a little to the shrine maids in my broken Japanese.
The area around the shrine was cordoned off and people had started taking up spots as close to the stage as possible. Since I nothing much to do while waiting, I turned to my old habit of silently observing the people around me. A young mother was adjusting her son’s jacket for their family picture. On the other side, a few elderlies were clicking pictures of the flowers blossoming near the shrine. But the people who piqued my interest the most were a couple of girls dressed in party attire – complete with platform heels and curled hair. Sitting at the very front, they seemed to be looking forward to the beginning of the ceremonies. Although it was a bit startling to spot some unexpected visitors, it was quite a delight to see the youth being eager for a traditional event.
“We thank you for your gracious presence. The ceremony will begin shortly”, so the announcement went off, breaking my stream of thoughts.
And before I could readjust my eyes towards the shrine or realise how many people had gathered around, a stream of mascots started marching in.
From Fuchu city’s very own mascot “Fuchukoma” to FC Tokyo’s agile racoon dog “Dorompa-kun”, the colourful mascots infused a new vigour into the crowd. Out of the ten or so mascots, Keio railways’ little train carriage “Keita-kun” seemed to be the most popular, with little kids shouting his name to grab attention.
As the mascots were entertaining the crowd with their antics, a procession of people, who had volunteered to be a part of the mamemaki ritual, too entered in. As soon as everyone had settled in, the bean-throwing began.
It looked like a downpour of little packets of soybeans everywhere. People around me had come prepared with bags to catch the packets comfortably. I didn’t have much time to appreciate the thinking and preparedness of my neighbours because my anxiety and competitive spirit caught up – I would never forgive myself for not being able to catch any fukumame.
With newfound zeal, I was making every effort to catch the flying packets. But they seemed to keep missing me, as I was struggling alone with my belongings while also trying to take pictures (for the first time I desperately longed for a companion). As some of the bean-throwers had already finished up their stock, my panic-mode was activated.
Lost amid my worries, I took notice of one of the bean-throwers – a pleasant-faced youth – who was constantly at the centre of the ritual and was repeatedly being called by girls in the audience. “He must be a celebrity”, I deduced, thinking about how the temples and shrines invite actors, sumo wrestlers or other famous people to take part in the Setsubun celebrations. (I turned out to be right – the man in question, I later found out, was actor and dancer Okuno Sō.) And thus, the real reason behind the dolled-up girls attending the festivities became clear to me.
At last, I managed to grab hold of one packet of my lucky beans. “Yes! I’m gonna be lucky this year”, I rejoiced, breathing a sigh of relief. Content with the fortune I managed to seize, I resumed my observation of others – it was heartening to see people’s face light up when they managed to catch the beans. (Had I any inkling of what the year was going to turn out like, I would have caught a couple more packets for sure.)
I carefully counted the number of beans I needed to eat while stashing the rest of them back in my bag to give to a friend. (The taste of the very first roasted soybean told me it was going to become a staple snack for me.) While consuming my fortune for the new year, I was contemplating this memorable day. With all the fun and frolic aside, I felt like an outsider at the shrine. I seemed to stand out (even more so than the excited fangirls) as the only non-Japanese at the festival. The unwanted attention was kind of justifiable, seeing that foreigners (who do want to take part in a tradition like Setsubun) usually visit the bigger, famous temples, rather than coming all the way to a small-town shrine. Nevertheless, no matter how much one likes the spotlight, sometimes blending in is preferable.
Having been in Japan for a good six months and being an avid solo traveller, I became quite used to grabbing eyeballs, but a lot of times it is accompanied by an uninviting atmosphere – like a draught of cold air that blows in through an open window on a winter day when you’re trying to enjoy a mug of hot chocolate.
Although I have not experienced explicit hostility, the invisible wall between me and everyone else does make me feel uncomfortable. Not knowing the language well makes social anxiety even worse – it feels like we are being talked about by the people around us, even when the woman besides me is probably only telling her friend about a great discount shop she discovered last week.
The scenario is not all bleak though. For as many people who seemingly give a cold shoulder (they might just be stressed out with their lives for all you know), there is an equal, if not greater, number of Japanese who don’t hesitate to extend a helping hand. From the elderly gentleman who smiled warmly at me when I was eating my fukumame to the kind lady who helped me with directions, from the young woman who picked up my lost Suica card to the university student who came to my rescue when I was lost, there are beacons of hope everywhere.
Well, coming back to Setsubun no Hi, if you are in Japan at that time, do make it a point to witness the festival in person. It’s not a kids’ favourite for no reason! Apart from the enjoyment, it’ll also leave you with plenty to think about. And seeing how 2020 is turning out to be, I guess we should revert to the old practice of celebrating 4 setsubuns a year. At any rate, it’s certainly not a bad idea to make fukumame a part of our daily diet.