When spring is sensed, it is traditionally thought that the chicken will start laying her eggs and so it is only appropriate that this animal is determined to herald the transition between the seasons. The end of hibernation also becomes tangible with the observance of the Setsubun festival in Kyoto. The day before the official first day of Spring (around February 3rd usually in the solar calendar), is the turning point or definitive marker. For a period of two days there are ceremonies at various shrines and temples to drive out oni:devils. This is called oni-yarai and is a kind of exorcism. Traditionally Japanese superstition held that the world was more susceptible to the influence of evil as personified by devils and ogres during the changes of the seasons. A ritual known as tsuina for dispelling evil was thus performed in the Imperial Heian court following a Chinese tradition. The ceremony was restored in modern times and is most famously held at Yoshida Jinja Shrine which coincidentally is just around the corner from where I live in Kyoto.
The ancient ceremony was simplified into various folk customs with people dispersing oni: ogres with the scattering of mame: soybeans and the good humored chanting of “Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi” : “Devils, get out! Good fortune, come in!” The modern version of this event at Yoshida Shrine usually involves hundreds of food stalls and crowds of up to 500 000 visitors over the two day period. One of the highlights is a ritual bonfire held at 11PM at night called karosai in which old amulets and New Year decorations that had been used to welcome the Gods are burned with a huge crowd in attendance. This year I had dutifully brought my shimekazari and old amulet to the shrine after January 15th in preparation for this event but alas due to the COVID 19 pandemic, the conflagration and food stalls were cancelled this year.
Nevertheless, when I visited the shrine, I felt a slightly subdued but lively embrace of ritual blessings and a brisk commerce in the acquisition of ceremonial arrows and amulets for the coming year. In previous years I had wondered whether the increasingly secularized modern Japanese really believed in the content of all the ritualized exorcism. However, this year with the backdrop of a global pandemic plague, I did feel a heightened fervency about the way coins were tossed in the ritual offertory boxes.
Even with all our technological advancement “progress”, in 2020/21 we as a global population have still been brought to our collective knees by the forces of an “awesome” (in the original sense of the word) and unpredictable Nature. Therefore is it any wonder that invocations to greater powers have been revitalized?
This year I also made a point of visiting an important subsidiary shrine attached to the main Yoshida Shrine called Saijosho-Daigengu. In this sanctuary, the yaoyorozu no kami (countless number of celestial and terrestial deities) are enshrined. Around the sanctuary, the 3,132 Shinto deities from across Japan are also worshipped. When viewed from above the building is shaped like an octagon. The form is used to symbolize the ideals of Yoshida Shintoism which sought to integrate Esoteric Buddhism, Confucianism, the concept of Yin-Yang and Taoism. Since all the Shinto deities are enshrined here, a visit to this subsidiary shrine is believed to be as effective as visiting all of the Shinto shrines across Japan. When I saw this note on the official signboard, I couldn’t help grinning. There is something very pragmatic about “killing the proverbial deities with one stone/visit”. Usually closed to the public for most of the year, Setsubun is a very popular event and is always crowded with worshippers from all over Japan here.
Immediately upon entry to the shrine, I saw a magnificent structure intricately hand made from rice straw which upon inquiry was revealed to be a yakuzuka or purification pillar. The worshippers are invited to touch the central pillar rope in order to remove impurities and defilements which are transferred through the medium of the rice straw to the deities that reside in the shrine. Rice as decoration was ubiquitous in forms as varied as: huge barrels of sake as well as rounded mirror rice cakes kagami mochi. Yet another potent reminder of the deep agricultural basis of Japanese culture and ritual.
There are any number of fantastic rituals observed during these Japanese “rites of Spring” at Setsubun. Some of my favorite include: eating roasted soybeans to the same or one more than the number of your age although it risks indigestion for those of us middle aged or beyond! Heads of the family are supposed to wear oni: devil/ogre masks (supplied for free at any convenience store or supermarket selling roasted soybeans) during the throwing and chanting to dispel the evil spirits from the home.
It is also customary to eat ehou-maki, a thick sushi roll that should be placed vertically and eaten in silence after turning to the ehou: (lucky direction of the year). The lucky direction of course changes every year and is almost impossible to remember. This is yet another tie to Chinese derived Feng-shui and the almost lost art/science of geomancy. After determining that this year’s auspicious direction was south-southeast, I wolfed down the delicious sushi in short order and having dutifully swallowed an outrageous number of beans I washed it all down with a local beer. Especially in these uncertain times, there was something about following this cultural ritual “religiously” (even if it is not my own), that was immensely comforting and by the time my head touched the pillow that night, I did indeed feel the gremlins had been banished and that spring was arriving.