When you really think about them, even the traditions and practices that we each grew up with and seem perfectly normal are kind of odd. Easter, once solely the Christian celebration of the resurrection of Jesus, now sees us telling children that a benevolent rabbit came in the night to leave them chocolate eggs. Christmas takes us even further into the world of fantasy as kids grow up thinking that a magical man who lives in the North Pole works a team of elves all year round to make presents for them, delivering said gifts across the world in a single night via flying woodland beasts, despite the man himself likely having respiratory problems owing to his XXL frame.

Although Japan doesn’t really do Christmas, it does have a plenty of its own traditions and yearly celebrations, and it just so happens that today is one of them. Setsubun, or the spring bean-throwing festival, sees children yelling at and peppering fictional demons with handfuls of roasted beans, and families sitting down to eat enormous pieces of maki, or roll, sushi, often adhering to peculiar local traditions as they do.

Setsubun (written 節分) is the day on which Japanese people traditionally welcome in a fresh new year following the cold winter. It may still be incredibly chilly in most of Japan, but every February 3, families force the “demons” out of their home and wish for good luck as spring approaches.

Traditionally, the eldest male member of the household will throw a handful of roasted soybeans, called fuku mame, (meaning “lucky beans”) out of the front door of the house, as if to symbolise chasing away a demon, or oni. Whenever there are children in the house, however, more often than not someone – usually poor old Dad – has to don an oni mask and dance around menacingly while the kids throw the beans at him and shout 鬼は外!福は内! (Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi), meaning “Demons out! Good luck in!”

▼ It’s not easy being an oni!


Image: Harbord Japanese Culture Club

Of course, some little people take the business of driving out demons more seriously than others. One Twitter user in Japan, for instance, yesterday commented that they returned home to find their young daughter “training” for today’s bean throwing, using a makeshift demon for target practice.

▼ Give those demons hell, kid!

Screen Shot 2014-02-03 at 2.07.20 PM

With the throwing finished, it’s time to get down to the bit that even the adults in the house usually look forward to: eating. Ehoumaki, written 恵方巻き  (lit. blessing, way/direction, roll), are huge sushi rolls that traditionally contain seven ingredients (seven being a lucky number), and are thought to originate from Osaka and the greater Kansai region. The rolls were once more commonly known simply as marukaburi zushi, with maru meaning “in one” or “whole”, and kaburi denoting the process of eating in huge great mouthfuls.


In 1998, however, convenience store chain 7-Eleven began selling the sushi rolls across the entire country, branding them ehoumaki. They have been popular even outside of Kansai ever since, with supermarkets and convenience stores selling them by the truckload every setsubun, some of them measuring up to 20cm (8 inches) in length and being twice or three times the thickness of normal makizushi rolls.

Viewed up close, these ehoumaki probably don’t look so enormous, but with an everyday object laid beside them for comparison, it’s easy to see that even these regular, store-bought rolls are absolute monsters and so heavy that they’re almost impossible to pick up with chopsticks.



Bought from a regular supermarket, this particular pair of rolls cost 1,000 yen (US$10), and were stuffed with tamagoyaki, cucumber, denbu (dried, seasoned fish), freeze-dried tofu, shiitake mushroom, kanpyou (dried gourd shavings), and of course rice.

Besides being incredibly tasty and filling, the general idea is that eating these rolls will bring good fortune over the coming year. It also helps that, as big as they are, the rolls almost resemble the kind of poles or clubs one might use to chase a pesky demon out of the family home and end a blight of bad luck.

Depending on the region, or sometimes even individual household, there are additional traditions surrounding the eating of ehoumaki. In some parts of Osaka, for example, people make it a rule to eat their entire sushi roll with their eyes closed. In others, it’s customary to consume it all while smiling. Finally, perhaps created by tired parents who just wanted a few minutes’ peace, some people believe that one should remain silent from the moment they take their first bite of an ehoumaki until they swallow the very last grain of rice.

But whether you’re smiling, eating in the dark, or in total silence, if you want the coming year to be really, really lucky, you should pay close attention to the direction you face while eating your ehoumaki. According to the label on the ehoumaki we had earlier today, this year’s “lucky direction” is “east-north-east”, and should be faced while the eating it.


Sadly, we were too hungry to think about such things and had finished off the entire sushi roll before realising that we were probably facing in the completely wrong direction. Oh well, there’s always next year, right?

Happy Setsubun, everyone!

Photos: RocketNews24