Sunday, Feb 4 is Setsubun (Bean-throwing Ceremony Day), a curious festival based on the old Chinese lunar calendar when Setsu was New Year' Eve and the last day of winter.

The general idea of Setsubun is to drive out evil, sickness and misfortune from the old year and welcome good luck, health and fortune into the new one, primarily though a ritual known as mame-maki (bean-throwing).

Japanese fathers usually spend the festivities wearing an oni (devil) mask, representing a demon, evil and bad luck, and the rest of the family throw roasted soybeans at daddy to drive out the badness he represents. Shouting "Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!" ("Out with the demons! In with good luck!") they pelt him with beans. Years ago special care was taken to throw beans in the "lucky direction," the direction of the god of that year, and then once in the opposite direction. This is not strictly practiced today, but if you're interested, lucky beans should be thrown in a south, south-easterly direction during the year of the serpent.

Cardboard oni devil masks and packets of roasted soybeans can be purchased at any convenience store or supermarket. Of course if you live alone you may feel a bit foolish throwing beans at yourself, in which case you have two "lucky" options: One is to eat the number of beans equivalent to your age. How appealing this is depends on your penchant for eating hard, dried beans and also how many you have to eat.

A more palatable choice may be to join one of the public ceremonies performed at a local shrine, known as Setsubun-e, during which celebrities throw handfuls of "lucky" fuku-mame beans and "lucky" fuku-mochi rice cakes into the crowd. Anyone fortunate enough to catch one will be blessed for the entire year.Ę The beans are usually thrown by a respected citizen like a priest or actor, but sumo wrestlers are particularly popular, probably because their size alone is sufficient to scare away even the most determined devil, adding some weight behind the forces of good fortune. In addition to being famous, the bean-scatterer should ideally be a toshi-otoko (a man born in a former year of the snake) dressed in a formal montsuki hakama (men's kimono).

Setsubun dates back to the Japanese Muromachi period 1333-1568, but originated during the Chinese Zho dynasty in 1067 BC when Chinese men dressed in bear skins and masks and pretended to drive away evil with sharp weapons. Today, large Japanese men dressed in mawashi (loincloths) throw beans and rice cakes at devils. How little times have changed!

Obvious destinations on the 4th include Zojo-ji and Senso-ji in Asakusa, but one of the most popular Setsubun festivals takes place at Tomioka Hachimangu (in Monzen-nakacho on the Tozai line). Here four or five sumo wrestlers hurl fortuitous beans and mochi at the crowds, just be sure to get there early. Although the event doesn't officially start until 4pm, ticket sales start at 2pm, and they go like hot cakes - or should that be hot beans? 

Cathy Frances

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