Setsubun ehou ehō maki roll feature image

Before you start obsessing over Valentine’s Day plans, let’s turn for a moment to another February whoop-de-do: the Japanese Bean-Throwing Festival or Setsubun. Celebrated on February 3 this year, it’s an intriguing blend of evil ogres and spirits, roasted soybeans, and chomping on a whole baton of thickly rolled sushi while facing in the proper direction. These somewhat disparate ingredients commingle on this day to assure good fortune and health for the year to come.

In recent years, western Japan’s custom of eating a special type of sushi called ehō-maki (恵方巻き, literally “blessed direction roll”) for Setsubun has spread across the nation due to marketing campaigns by grocery and convenience stores; what’s more, the sushi rolls have been evolving into scrumptious cream-filled Swiss rolls! Iconoclastic? Maybe. Delicious? Yes!

So let’s jump on the bandwagon and look into this holiday a bit before drooling over this collection of sushi and their sweet doppelgängers. And Yowapeda fans, I think I spy a Makishima-maki!

Setsubun (節分), written with characters that mean “season” and “divide,” is held on the day before the beginning of Spring according to the lunar calendar. To drive away the evil spirits that are thought to be especially active around the changing of the seasons, along with the bad fortune of the past year, roasted soybeans are thrown in a ritual called mame-maki (maki can mean “throwing” as well as “rolling”), which dates back to at least the 1400s.

Typically, a lucky family member puts on an oni (ogre) mask and gets pelted with the fuku-mame (happiness beans) in every room and out the door while the throwers yell, “Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!” (鬼は外! 福は内!), meaning “Demons out! Fortune in!” Then everyone eats one soybean for every year they have lived, and sometimes one more for good luck.

▼ Poor Panda…

polar bear cafe bean throwing screenshotImage: Crunchyroll, Polar Bear Cafe Ep. 41

In the evening, a type of futo-maki (thick sushi roll) called ehō-maki is eaten while you face ehō, the blessed direction, because the toshitokujin (歳徳神, the god presiding over the year’s happiness and bounty) is said to reside there. The direction depends on the year’s zodiac animal, and 2015’s ehō lies between west and west-southwest.

▼ While thinking of a wish, you consume the whole roll in silence in order to not lose any luck and to ensure good health. The roll is eaten uncut so as not to cut your ties with fortune, kind of like this:

Aeon Yokai Watch Jibanyan Setsubun commercialImage: YouTube

For the past few years, most retailers have been offering single-serving ehō-maki as well as ehō-rolls, as the cakes are now being called; many start accepting orders as early as December. Now, let’s take a look at what some convenience stores have been cooking up!

7-Eleven is selling traditional sushi rolls, like this one on the left with conger eel, shītake, kanpyō, egg, and cucumber. It’s going for 580 yen (US$4.90) and is an easy-to-eat 3.3 by 1.8 inches. A more contemporary version on the right includes smoked salmon, mayo, and shrimp.

7-11 7-eleven sushi roll ehou-maki setsubunImages: 7-Eleven

▼ Their strawberry roll is mimicking sushi with its chocolate crepe wrapping and rice-like whipped cream and sponge cake, while the gorgeous dessert on the right seems like a looser adaptation. Both cost 330 yen or $2.79, and measure roughly 4.5” long by 2” wide, a little larger than your average snack cake.

7-11 7-eleven ehou roll cake, setsubunImages: 7-Eleven

FamilyMart is offering four types of ehō-maki, including a seafood special with salmon roe, Hokkaido scallops, and tuna, as well as a sukiyaki-inspired wagyū beef version.

FamilyMart setsubun sushi roll, ehou-makiImages: FamilyMart

▼ Their selection of sweets also takes its cue from nori: the cake on the left achieves its dark color most likely from Dutch-processed cocoa and is filled with whipped cream as well as an entire banana. The top right cake also contains a whole banana but with chocolate whipped cream. Their wagashi-style cake includes molasses and sweet black beans, a good luck food eaten on New Year’s.

FamilyMart ehou roll cake, setsubunImages: FamilyMart

Three-F has prepared seven types of limited-quantity sushi rolls, including a mini-roll set and an eye-catching one with a large deep-fried shrimp!

three-f, setsubun sushi roll, ehou-makiImage: Three-F

▼ For the Setsubun sweets, they decided that rolled cakes are close enough and forewent the sushi-like visuals. In keeping with the festival’s themes, though, the foot-long cream puff on the right and the cake next to it were fashioned after the ogres’ clubs. Hmm, I may not mind being bludgeoned with those.

three-F ehou roll cake, setsubunImage: Three-F

Another cake roll is patterned after the ogres’ tiger-striped underwear! Ogres are often depicted as such because they enter this world from the kimon (demon gates) located in the northeast, which is the direction given to the tiger in the zodiac.

▼ Anyone remember when this classic song made an appearance on Episode 2 of Hōzuki no Reitetsu?

Circle K Sunkus, however, decided to stick with the sushi look for one of their cake rolls, but are those… tortilla wraps on the left? Yup, looks like we’ve got a kalbi beef and veggie wrap and a seafood one with snow crab, smoked salmon trout, and shrimp. I think this confirms our speculation that if it’s rolled, anything goes!

circle k sankus setsubun sushi and cake rolls, tortilla wrapsImage: Circle K Sunkus

▼ Major retailer Aeon has capitalized on this trend by collaborating with the uber-popular anime Yōkai Watch for their ehō-maki and ehō-roll; both are inspired by the show’s cat ghost named Jibanyan. The cake must have been on everyone’s wish list because though online orders were being accepted until Jan. 29, as of Jan. 21 it was already sold out.

Aeon Yokai Watch Jibanyan ehou roll cake, eho, setsubunImage: Aeon

▼ How can kids resist begging their parents after seeing a commercial like this?

Not to be outdone, Priroll, a Tokyo-based company that specializes in digitally printed custom cakes, have their own line-up of eho-rolls emblazoned with famous characters.

▼ It’s only fitting that the bean-based characters from the Mameshiba franchise get cakes for the Bean-Throwing festival! These measure roughly 6.3” by 1.6” each and are filled with strawberry cream.

Priroll mameshiba ehou-roll cake roll, eho-roll, setsubunImage: Priroll 1

▼ Thanks to his name, Makishima-senpai from Yowamushi Pedal gets the Setsubun treatment as well! Also making an appearance is Hayato Shinkai since he’s known as the “straight line demon” (I really hope his cake is full of energy bar crumbs) as well as Fuku-chan (the same “fuku” from “Fuku wa uchi!”).

Priroll Yowapeda Makishima maki-chan cake roll, ehou roll, eho roll, setsubunImage: Priroll 2

While their other cake rolls aren’t specifically for this festival, from what we’ve seen today there’s nothing stopping you from substituting a Tokyo Ghoul or Kamisama Kiss cake for the traditional sushi roll.

▼ Rilakkuma wants in on the action too! These fatter cakes measure about 6.3” long by 3.5” wide.

Priroll San-X Rilakkuma roll cake, swiss roll, ehou-roll, setsubunImage: Priroll 3

▼ And if you feel like getting sweet revenge on a Titan…

Priroll attack on titan, anime, cake roll, swiss roll, ehou-roll, setsubunImage: Priroll 4

So if you have some time this February 3, go throw some roasted soybeans or peanuts, like some prefectures do, before facing just slightly south of west and chowing down on a sushi roll. If you don’t have any nori or rice handy, I bet a Twinkie wrapped in a Fruit Roll-Up or a Drake’s Yodel will suffice!

Sources: Matome Naver, Let’s Enjoy Tokyo 1, Wikipedia, Ashita no Netachō, Kanshundō 
Feature Images: 7-Eleven, Let’s Enjoy Tokyo 2, Priroll 1, Three-F, Priroll 2
Videos: YouTube 1, 2