‘Since I had a fall there one year I haven’t been back.’
‘What fall? How did you fall?’ I ask concerned tearing my eyes away from my DSLR viewfinder.
‘I was at the back and fell over trying to catch it. I haven’t been back.’
This time I was going to make sure Obaachan did no falling. She’s only 80 years old.
I asked her in the morning what Sé-tsu-bün is, or meant, or whatever.
I asked her in the morning what Sé-tsu-bün is, or meant, or whatever.
It happens every year on 3rd February and the kanji (Japanese calligraphic letters) spell out something like “Spring is coming” or “the bringing in of Spring”; although from what I can surmise it sounds more like the goading in of Spring - as the main pursuit of the festivities involve throwing handfuls of hard little soya beans at a monster, or what they call oni here. I love this tradition. Obaachan remembers that when I was knee-high I’d follow my Ogiichan (J. grandfather) around the house like a lap dog, closely weaving my way around his legs as he threw beans out the windows and slammed them shut.
Let me explain.
On Sé-tsu-bün, lots of Japanese people will buy small bags of dried soya beans from supermarkets and then when home it’s tradition to take handfuls of these beans and throw some indoors and then throw some outdoors through windows and doorways, all the whilst shouting
Oni wa- Sö tō!
(English trans. Monsters outside!)
Füku wa- Üchi!
Oni can mean monsters, evil spirit, badness, evil itself.
Füku can mean joy, happiness, luck, fortune, goodness.
And when you’ve thrown the handful of beans outside through the respective doorway or window, one slams it shut so that the evil spirits and monsters can’t get back in.
‘How many doors and windows do you have to throw beans out of?’
Obaachan replies wisely, ‘Any doors and any windows. Anywhere evil might get in.’
I imagine that’s quite a lot of cracks.
‘When your Ogiichan used to do it, I’d tell him, don’t throw handfuls of beans indoors because of the mess, throw in three or four beans max. The ones he threw indoors I’d pick up after him and eat.’
‘You’d eat them?’
‘A friend told me you have to eat your age so that mean 80 beans for me this year - ’ she breaks off for a chuckle ‘I don’t even like soya beans.’
So now at the supermarket I’m excited to get some beans but my Obaachan tells me we aren’t allowed to celebrate it in our house this year because we're still officially in the mourning period for my Ogiichan who passed away last year, about this time now actually. Instead we go to the food aisles where there are lots of old ladies and mothers with children going after some sort of sushi roll.
Another tradition that comes with Sé-tsu-bün is that you’re supposed to eat a long fat sushi roll whilst standing facing a cardinal direction that’s chosen as auspicious for that year. By whom? No idea. Why do you eat a big fat sushi roll standing up like your looking through a pair of binoculars, but with your mouth? Not sure. These sushi rolls are called é hō maki and the kanji in the name means the “good direction”. This year you’re meant to eat them standing facing West-South-West, so I’ll get a compass out tonight at dinner.
Did you know every day here, in the town of Kasukabé where I was born, a city-wide announcement is made at three o’clock on all weekdays that says, ‘BING-BONG: Thank you to all drivers for being so careful every day on our roads and not causing traffic accidents. It is almost rush-hour now so let us carry on being safe on the roads. We citizens are very grateful.’ In England that would be eerie, 1984-esque, here it’s earnest governing, which still strikes me as authoritarian but almost like a double bluff.
I get my camera out and ready for the Sé-tsu-bün ceremony at the shrine. This is the shrine where I had the Japanese equivalent of a christening; some 20 years ago, a Shintō priest would have waved some paper over my head and stamped my forehead with a stamp; I believe all babes cry astronomically loudly at this sensitive time post-birth.
The festivities start at four thirty but there’s lots of oldies and children milling around the shrine by four and the moment we step in to the shrine’s forecourt my Obaachan’s been accosted by other obaachans, so whilst she mingles I look about poking with my eyes anything that doesn’t make obvious sense. Everyone holds bags, plastic ones that you might get from the shops which are all currently hanging limply down by the side or stuffed in to anorak pockets. A lot of oldies are waiting with tiny yappy dogs that shiver tremendously in the wintry afternoon, the kind that gives off visible breath. Here and there appear small clusters of school uniforms, the older boys wear cheap-blue track-suits whilst the middle-school girls wear mini-skirts and the tots all wear yellow-rimmed caps holding hands. There are officials in gloves and blazers keeping guard on high posts, such as a makeshift stage that has been built on one side of the forecourt and also on top of the stone steps leading up to the shrine proper, a wooden-built hall with a copper-green roof slanting upwards like a samurai helmet. The whole space is shrouded by trees and the shrine backs on to woodland, most Japanese shrines will have a Tree of the shrine, which is often sacred and demarcated with white-paper and rope wrapped around its trunk. I like how trees are sacred in Shintō, they don’t get given much time these days.
Five colourful oni, looking like tipsy spin-offs of the Power Rangers climb down the steps of the shrine to a flurry of announcements and proceed to get pelted with soya beans handed-out by the shrine administrators moments before. The kids and their parents, young and old, all muck in and have a go – jubilant - hurling dried soya beans down at the monster-disguised guys whilst shouting that epithet about ‘Monsters outside! Goodness inside!’ The oni wave large black studded clubs around and target little kids to scare them off and the adults lead their kids to them so that they get scared off (it’s a joint effort, like an active violent funny perpetuation of Father Christmas). One oni painted in hulk-green spins round to ROAR at a little girl in pigtails and as she screams and cries herself silly, the mum shoots off after her beckoning for her to come back whilst laughing. I love this. After the pelting of the oni is over, sadly, the announcements go again and all these well-dressed men and women file out on to the shrine steps with large bags full of stuff. An esteemed member of their team with white hair and creases round the eyes makes a pithy speech about good fortune and then the madness begins.
Showers of things - crisp packets, sweet wrappers, bits and bobs - ramen packs, tissue papers, rice-crackers, rain down everywhere. Pulled out and thrown up from the white bags of the important people up there, down on the people who’ve got their plastic bags opened and held above their heads down here. It’s a joyous free for all. People scramble about other people’s feet, particularly the less fortunate ones who keep dropping the goods that keep falling on their heads. Boys run through the crowd shouting, their leader holding up a very large candy-stick that must have been obtained through some effort. Small children grab at dust and throw sweets into bags with a toothy smile, and the old obaachans and ogiichans scuttle around lightly at the edges of the throng, picking up the bits that people don’t go crazy for, like the tissue packets and dried noodles. No wonder Obaachan fell over I thought, the people are having too much frenzied fun with the fight and the tussle over getting these meaningless goods in their bag. I am loving how it’s a team mentality but an individual feat, picking up the things that rain down on you, that very fine balance between gratitude and sticking out your tongue at your neighbour when you get something you want. A friend of Obaachan says to me on the way home wheeling her bike, ‘It's like we become children again!’ and maybe the age-range is the most impressive thing, with people between 5 - 85 getting involved in the scrum.
The hustle has quietened and the important people have lined up neatly again at the top of the steps. The sun sets as the white-haired man speaks and it all ends with a unison clapping and the shouting of some “hip hip hooray” sort of sounds and then shuffling off. Everyone pleased with their dirt-ridden sweet bags.
And that’s Sé-tsu-bün.
The “chasing away of the monsters and picking up the tit-bits” festival of Japan to welcome in the Spring. Hello Spring. Goodbye Monsters.