The Setsubun Festival: Spring, Demons, and Vendors

Spring comes early in Japan, and if you are lucky enough to be here at the beginning of February, you can witness this first hand. Shrines around the country host a bean throwing, spirit cleansing, and evil chasing festival that can last up to three days at a time.

Known as Setsubun, meaning seasonal division, this centuries-old festival is an unofficial holiday celebrated between February 2 and 4. Though the entire festival can be called Setsubun, the word specifically refers to the day before spring in Japan.

As a native Ohioan where a snowstorm is not unheard of in May, I was not expecting a spring celebration any time soon. When I started seeing little red demons masks popping up in the convenient stores, they struck me as a mere curiosity not unlike the huge fish heads in the freezer section.

However, within days of the demon mask debuts, posters of people in red and blue demon suits brandishing black, baseball-bat-shaped clubs appeared in the subways and train stations. As I was to find out, these demons – or oni – are a huge part of both the festivities and the philosophy behind the tradition.

I am fortunate to be located near the Yoshida-jinja Shinto shrine, an important spiritual landmark in Kyoto. Prior to learning of this festival, I had no idea it was tucked away on a hill 15 minuets from my daily train stop.

It was early evening on the second when I finally made my way to Yosida-jinja. I elbowed through blocks of humans coming and going before finally emerging into an overwhelming assortment of tents, stalls, and purveyors galore. There was no time get my bearings before the tide of people swept me down one path, up another, and soon dumped me out half a mile from where I entered.

Dazed? Yes. But I was hooked, and for the life of me I could not get the image of green mochi balls on a stick out of my mind. Entering the foray again, I rode the current past children squealing with delight, vendors shouting “Hai Dozo,” and groups of face stuffing foodies right up the steps of the shrine itself. 

Now, the atmosphere began to change. I climbed many stairs with dim lanterns on my right and a stone wall on my left. As I neared the landing, the haunting call of a wooden flute became just perceptible. Its tone was sharp, yet gentle, such that I felt beckoned to find its source.

Before my search could get underway, an ominous drumming nearly stopped me in my tracks. Dum, dum-dum…Dum, dum-dum… Looking back down the stairs, the party was still on, but up here people were filling a massive cage with their wishes from the previous year, and getting new ones blessed for this year.

Once darkness had fully blanketed the shrine, much of the crowd joined me near the cage and packed in along a roped-off path. Soon, monks with large bundles of burning incense passed the crowed followed in short order by the oni. 

They emerged grunting and threatening the crowd with their five-foot clubs as small children shouted “kowai!” Other costumed participants followed including a Buddhist Monk with a necklace of fist-sized beads, an archer, and men in puffy white coats and traditional black hair pieces that bobbed as they walked.

All of this I witnessed on the tips of my toes, and even then I could barely see what was happening. Hundreds of people had amassed behind and in front of me all vying for a better view – at one point I counted six other people in direct contact with my body.

After a short ceremony under a small pagoda and just out of my field of view, the characters passed by again making their exit for the evening. The crowd quickly dispersed with some following them further up the hill, and others returning to the now brightly lit revelry below.

What did it all mean? 

As stated above, the festival is a sort of new years, beginning of spring, Halloween conglomeration. The oni are evil spirits that scare and tease the children who throw beans to scare them away – part of the event I missed while emptying my wallet on snacks.

Beyond costumed characters, they represent negativity and disease while the beans symbolize purity. Festivalgoers are literally cleansing the accumulated bad vibes of the previous year and entering the new with a fresh start. Similarly, the cage being filled with last year’s wishes was to be burned at the festival’s conclusion – the fire allowing the wishes to be released and fulfilled.

However, if you are not into all the metaphysics behind it, there is plenty of locally brewed sake and more food than a horde of hungry folks can eat in a three-day period. This was an absolute blast, but for me, the dramatic difference between the upper and lower environments really made it a memorable experience.

By Anthony Vitale

This is the third article in my ongoing Japan Travel column. Next week I will be diving face first into all the street food I have come across at the various temples and events so get ready for lots of things on sticks. Also check out my Instagram ogopofosho.