For one tall father attending a raucous bean-throwing festival on Feb. 3, cleansing one’s spirit of a year’s worth of bad deeds begins on Day One.
“We really enjoyed ourselves and caught a lot of beans,” he said, speaking at the Honmonji temple in Tokyo’s Ota Ward with his son perched on his shoulders. “But now I realize that someone my size should have stood in the back so that those behind me could have gotten their share.”
"Mamemaki," as the bean-throwing event is called, is just one of the customs that make up Setsubun, or "seasonal division," the date on the traditional Japanese calendar that marks the last day of winter. Throughout the country, people throng to Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines and compete to catch beans thrown by stars, singers, athletes and other notables to bring good fortune.
Mamemaki can look ridiculous. Yet the event is actually a purification ritual meant to drive away the bad karma and evil spirits accrued during the previous year. The appointed bean throwers normally shout, “Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi” (“Demons out! Good fortune in!”), as they scatter packets of beans at the crowd.
But not at Honmonji, according to Chisei Ueno, one of the senior monks at the temple.
“Instead we have them shout, ‘Fuku wa uchi! Fuku wa uchi!’ because we want the ritual to focus on bringing happiness to everyone,” he explained, adding that the beans are just one aspect of the rite.
In fact, a pair of ogres, one red and one blue, led the procession of dignitaries on Feb. 3 to the main prayer hall, to listen to the monks chant in a prelude to the bean throwing.
Among the stars to show up were pro wrestlers Kensuke Sasaki, Keiji Muto, Ikuei Yamamoto and his son, Norifumi “Kid” Yamamoto, a mixed martial artist; former WBA middleweight boxing champ Shinji Takehara; and Giabbit, the hare-themed mascot of the Yomiuri Giants professional baseball team.
The temple is where the remains of one of Japan’s greatest post-war heroes, pro wrestler Rikidozan (1924-1963) are interred, which is why the temple is holy ground for grapplers and other contenders. It’s also said to be the spot where the monk Nichiren (1222-1282) died.
Setsubun is serious work for the monks who, in addition to praying and chanting, have to bag enough beans for the event, which draws more than 10,000 visitors. They also make extra ones, to sell for 300 yen ($3.23) apiece.
It’s long hours of work, said Yushi Nakasuji, one of the young disciples at the temple, for a very short ceremony. After the 40-minute chanting session, the bean throwing lasts just three minutes.
“In each packet we put a handful of roasted soybeans and a square of caramel,” explains the monk. “Of course the caramel wasn’t part of the original ceremony (which dates to the Muromachi Period, 1338-1573), but we wanted to make the packets a little heavier, so that the guests can throw them farther. We want to make sure that as many people as possible have a chance to catch one.”
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