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Saturday, February 04, 2006



Setsubun Roasted BeansOn a freezing snowy Kyoto midwinter night, we celebrated the arrival of the first day of spring. According to the traditional Japanese lunar calendar, February 3rd or 4th is the first day of spring.

In keeping with that, the custom in rural Japan--which is now followed in cities as well--was and is to hold rituals to keep evil devils at bay at such a propitious time of year. Highly superstitious Japanese of years past feared that evil spirits would curse the spring planting.

In the past, people would cut off the head of a sardine and hang it--in all of its smelly, rotting glory--above the door to the house. According to my father-in-law, this was still done when he was a child in Kyoto. In addition, the sight of holly boughs was also common; both of these were thought to scare off evil.

Maki SushiAt dinner, we all faced in a southerly direction and silently munched on giant maki-sushi. After downing these jumbo sushi rolls, conversation resumed. The sardines were duly burnt--and barely touched. And, oh the sins of modernity, we went through several bottles of French wine.

After dinner, we performed the final ritual: tossing roasted beans out all of the windows of the house, chanting "oni wa soto" (out with devil!); and then, turning around, tossing more beans inside the house and yelling "fuku wa uchi" (good luck/prosperity inside!). Then, following that--and slamming the windows to shut out the snow and cold--we all picked up beans off of the tatami mats and ate the same number of beans as our age. (Though, full disclosure, aside from my seven-year-old daughter, we all just took the number of beans as the second number of our respective ages: my 73-year-old father-in-law ate three whole beans.)

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