Sunday, February 10, 2008

Celebrating Setsubun

Here's Joe, all tuckered out from sledding in the snow on an innertube last Sunday.

I've fallen a bit behind reporting our latest adventures, but I hope to catch up this weekend since tomorrow is a national holiday. You know what that means! No work! Ah, the joys of being a government employee!

Ok, well it means something else, too. It's National Foundation Day, which celebrates the founding of Japan. It doesn't sound like there will be much hoopla — no fireworks or anything like that. Rather, it's a day for the Japanese to fly Japan's flag and reflect on what it means to be Japanese. So I suppose I shall sit around and contemplate how grateful I am to the Japanese for taking a day off to be grateful they're Japanese. Hurray!

Now, back to the regularly scheduled program...

Last weekend Joe and I made a trip into the inaka (countryside) with about 50 other foreigners who belong to the Hiroshima International Center to play in the snow and celebrate the Japanese holiday of Setsubun. Strangely, the only other American on the trip was a guy who works at the HIC. We rubbed elbows with people from all over the world — China, the Dominican Republic, Egypt, Russia. Pretty cool!

We all piled onto a charter bus for the two hour drive to a community center in Kita Hiroshima-Chou, a mountain town in the northwest end of the prefecture in an area known for its concentration of ski resorts.

While Hiroshima city was just generally chilly and wet, the mountains were draped in a thick blanket of snow. I'd say there was probably 8 or 10 inches of the stuff. Nice wet snow, too, the perfect kind for playing in. So after some playful romps sledding down a little hill, we dove in to make a snowman taller than Joe. I gave him stick arms and bamboo antennae and for a little while forgot that I was not actually 8 years old anymore.

Unfortunately, some rambunctious boys knocked down our masterpiece before I could photograph it. But I did capture this cute sculpture some other guys made of An Pan Man, a popular children's cartoon in Japan.

When we were ready to take a break, the Japanese were happy to greet us with warm sake. They had set up some sort of wood burning stove in the parking lot. Some of them went out in a little truck to cut down some bamboo trees. The bamboo trees are hollow, with the trunk divided into sections all the way up. They sawed the trunk into little shot glasses for the sake, setting them on the oven to warm. Long sections were used as containers for pouring the sake. The old men were rather insistent that we drink the stuff. Luckily, it was rather weak, so after four or five shots I was still standing.

Later, everyone trooped inside for a buffet lunch of Japanese food and a few other international dishes followed by kagura dancing and a performance by a woman dressed as a geisha. All quite impressive.

Here's a video snippet of her performance.

The kagura dancer was in such constant motion that I just couldn't seem to get a clear photograph of him.

The cool thing was that after the kagura dance was over, the foreigners were invited to come try on some of the costumes. The Japanese snagged Joe and outfitted him in this amazing dragon costume with a really long tail. He became like a mini celebrity. Everyone wanted their picture with him.

We capped off the day with a Setsubun celebration, though I have no pictures of it to share since it was mass chaos in the community center and I was getting showered by stray beans. Setsubun celebrates the approaching of spring. Traditionally, one person wears a horned red demon mask while others pelt him with dried soybeans and cry "Oni-ha-soto, fuku-ha-uchi!" ("Demons out, luck in!") until he runs out of the house.

Long ago, the Japanese believed that during this period ghosts and other monsters would gather together, bringing with them misfortune and disease. Throwing soybeans at them was supposed to drive out these unwanted beings. Roasted beans are deemed lucky. So you are supposed to throw the same number of beans at the demon as your age, and that protects you from harm and illness. Everywhere around the beginning of February, stores sell kits with demon masks and roasted beans so families can carry out this ritual at home. The man of the house gets the honor of playing the demon, by the way.

Some people take it a step further. They pierce sardine heads with sprigs of holly and hang them on the front door. The smell drives off demons and other foul influences. Not so necessary for us here, we decided... though I'll be sure to adopt this particular Japanese custom should I have any more run-ins with pesky neighbors back home.

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