Since February 3 falls so close to the lunar New Year, Setsubun was once part of Japanese New Year’s rituals, meant to cleanse and purify for the coming year. Today, the holiday retains some of these traditions—in addition to a few unique ones. Most notably, people toss soybeans, which are thought to be especially effective weapons against demons, called oni.
Why soybeans? The soybean was once thought to be the most powerful of Japan’s five important crops. Setsubun is even known alternatively as mamemaki, or the bean-throwing festival, because mame (豆)—the word for bean—is a homonym for the other word mame (魔滅), which essentially means “destroying evil.”
At Japanese schools, students create oni masks and throw roasted soybeans at teachers dressed up as demons, saying “Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi! ,” which translates as “Out with the demons! In with good fortune!” The bean-throwing ceremony will often takes place at homes and temples, too.
What to do with all those beans afterward? Eat them, of course! People traditionally eat one roasted soybean—known as fuku-mame or “good-fortune beans”—for every year of their age, plus another for luck in the coming year.
A special type of sushi is also common during Setsubun. Once only popular in the Kansai prefecture, eho-maki is now common dish throughout Japan for this holiday. This over-sized sushi roll is comprised of seven ingredients thought to bring luck, although the specific ingredients vary. Fillings might include simmered shiitake mushrooms, kanpyo (dried gourd), cucumber, tamagoyaki (rolled omelet), eel, sakura denbu (sweet fish powder), seasoned koyadofu (freeze-dried tofu), roast beef, smoked scallops, seared spear squid and spiced cod roe.
Before you dig in, know that there is special etiquette. You must eat Eho-maki in contemplative silence, facing the eho, or “good-fortune direction” for the year. And although you typically slice sushi rolls into pieces, eho-maki rolls always remain in one big piece when you eat it. People believe it’s a bad luck to cut them. Happy Setsubun!