February 3rd (Wednesday) marks the annual celebration of the Japanese festival of Setsubun.  The word literally

Throwing beans and packets of beans at a shrine

translates to “sectional separation” and references a time when the lunar calendar was the only one in use and each year was separated into twenty-four sections according to the cycles of the moon. Now, the word has just become associated with the separation of seasons. This holiday takes place every year on the same day, but is essentially a prelude to the moving target of the lunar new year celebrations – Chinese New Year – and the start of spring, which is not far off.  (Just a note, 2010 is the year of the Tiger in Asia.)  This year the start of the lunar new year is February 14th, so it’s not that far of a separation, but some years it’s close and some years Setsubun and the Chinese New Year can be as much as a month apart. It just depends on the cycles of the moon.

Every year on this holiday, people go to local shrines and perform the bean throwing ceremony, called Mame Maki.

The bean-throwing ceremony is a colorful enactment of the wish for good luck and for warding off evil.  People throw beans at someone dressed in a devil mask and shout, “oni wa so to ” (get out demons) and “fuku wa uchi” (come in happiness.) Most people use roasted soy beans as the bean of choice for throwing, but these days, some people use peanuts too.  Some people perform the ceremony in their homes so that the children then pick up the number of beans corresponding to their ages and eat them so they will have good luck for the coming year.

One other neat custom is that people try to eat maki sushi (rolls) all in one go – thereby creating a continuous – unbroken – string of luck.  This is no easy feat!

Available at convenience stores across Japan: the beans and the masks!

Of course via the modern marketing engine, the larger shrines across the country will ask celebrities to come in along with sumo wrestlers and they will throw beans or cash wrapped in silver paper or other sweet treats to pander to the media, which will eagerly televise the enactments of the ancient customs.  As with most things in Japan, there’s a comfortable meshing of the modern and the time-honored that shows the leanings of the people: steeped in tradition, yet firmly ensconced in the here and now of modernity.