One of the things I have always liked about Japan is how actively people participate in the changing seasons. Despite the majority of Japanese living in cities that have long since lost a lot of real nature, there is still a strong appreciation of the changing seasons and for example the flowers, foods and fine artworks that represent them.
This is something I would miss if I lived in a place like Singapore, where the seasons do not change so much. In Manly, I mainly think in terms of “beach weather” and “not beach weather” although of course do enjoy things like the first warm breezes of spring; “southerly busters” and thunderstorms after a hot summer day and flannel flowers, wattle and other signs of seasonal change in the wildflowers.
Australia splits its seasons exactly every quarter on the first of the month, so 1 March sees in the first day of autumn. Japan, however, starts its spring rather earlier and so back on the 3rd of February we celebrated setsubun (節分) – literally “seasonal division” but usually meant to refer to the day before the start of spring.
One of the key aspects to celebrating setsubun is a bean-throwing ritual that is thought to cast out evil from the past year and clear the way for the year ahead. Sometimes these beans are thrown at shrines but it has historically also been a common practice at home (although I understand less so now than it was in the past).
In the household version, an evil-looking mask (representing the evil spirits) is donned by the head of the household while the other household members vigorously throw fistfuls of roasted soybeans at him.
Since the oni (demon or ogre) is sometimes represented by the male in the household who was born in the corresponding animal year in the Chinese zodiac rather than the head of the household, I also wore the mask – being a “rabbit” myself. Keira pelted me pretty well.
The bean-throwers shout “Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!” (out with the demons, in the with good luck).
It is also customary to eat one roasted soybean for each year of one’s life, plus perhaps an extra for good luck, though we all just settled on a few each.
The crunch of soybeans underfoot was still being occasionally heard a few days later, as despite best efforts to clean them all up they seemed to reappear every now and then.
Earlier this week we experienced haru ichiban – the first strong wind of the spring. We had a 23 degree day, though it is now cooler again and some rain has come along after an almost completely dry winter. Since it has now started to warm up, I don’t think we will see any significant snow in Odawara this year unfortunately. It did snow here very lightly one day, and nearby Hakone has received some heavier falls. Tokyo also had an unexpected 5 cm overnight snowfall that caused some minor chaos.
Another common practice during setsubun is to eat an entire sushi roll while facing that year’s lucky direction, without taking a break or saying a word. These extra-long sushi rolls are called ehoumaki. We did not do this, but did see a lot of them for sale at the local Robinson’s department store as well as plenty of ehoumaki-themed produce such as roll cakes shaped and coloured to look like sushi.
Meanwhile, I have been enjoying some early spring foods, such as sansai (山菜) mountain vegetables, nanohana, and other bitter vegetables. The plum blossoms are beautiful and still going strong. It is not long now until arguably Japan’s best display of the changing of the seasons – the sakura cherry blossoms – come into being.