Setsubun: One Fine Day in Spring

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The snow came and went faster than a fleeting thought on a cold February morning. Despite the cold, Setsubun is a very famous festival taking place across Japan right now. The festival involves throwing roasted beans at demons, and marks the penultimate day of winter, according to the Japanese lunar calendar. It doesn’t feel like spring is coming any time soon though; outside is cold, and patches of frozen white snow lay waste to the city of Tokyo. Perhaps it will stay this way for another two months, or perhaps the unpredictability of Japanese weather will strike again.

The bean-throwing festival will be taking place at most of the temples and shrines in Japan. I have decided not to attend, however. Instead, a group of performing artists in Asakusa are celebrating Setsubun in a very different way. With comedy, clowns, and plenty of balloons.

I arrive just as the event starts. It begins with a man dressed as a ninja doing tricks. He jumps over chairs, stacks some chairs, balances on chairs (his performance very much focused on seating) before he is randomly attacked by a man wearing a sheep costume. The sheep man throws a single bean at the ninja, he overreacts in a classic comedy style, before falling over and playing dead for the remainder of the proceedings.

After the ninja fight, two demons emerge. One dressed in white, presumably to represent good, and the other dressed in black. The demon in black wears a target on his back, seems far too happy for an evil spirit, and appears to be enjoying standing around on his high stilts, smiling at everyone.

Suddenly, the attention shifts to a group of clowns standing on a balcony above a Pachinko parlour. They start shouting in Japanese using megaphones; presumably, they have permission to be there and cause such a pollution of noise. After exchanges are made between clowns and demons that I can’t quite comprehend, people in the audience began to laugh, a lot. An elderly woman on a bicycle with an impossible number of shopping bags sighs as she tries to weave through the crowds. I might just add, this whole festival is taking place on a busy shopping street, and is perhaps causing a little too much chaos for some of the locals that just want to get to where they need to be.

After the shouting, all hell breaks loose. Paper bags are dropped from the sky by clowns in their thousands. Children and adults alike scramble to collect them from the floor. I raise my arm and catch one in midair; skills. Everyone is rushing around trying to salvage one of the decorated paper pouches. People are crashing into each other, forgetting about the safety of others; but regardless of the carnage, it’s actually a lot of fun.

The pouch I caught predictably contains roasted beans. After a while, everyone goes silent, before a chant occurs. Following the chant, people start pouring beans into their hand and throwing them as hard as they can at the demon. His smile quickly wiped from his face by roasted beans.

As I run out of beans, a little girl walks over to me and smiles. She takes my hand and pours beans into my palm. “Quickly! Throw,” she says, before giggling off and returning to her parents. Eventually, everyone runs out of ammunition and the event draws to a close. As people start to leave, the floor becomes a hunting ground for the hungry pigeons. A man with a megaphone starts shouting at the birds, and they eventually fly away. The last thing that happens is all of the performers, clowns, demons, and mimes, begin to clean the streets.

Something about seeing a mime hard at work sweeping the streets fills me with a sense of disappointment. It kind of spoils the character and takes away from the magic. I offer to help sweep using one of the many brushes, but I am shooed away, just like the pigeons.

I still have some of the afternoons to kill, so I decided to explore a little further. I stumble upon Tozenji Temple, said to house one of the six Jizōs of Tokyo. A Jizō is a Buddhist saint in search of truth and enlightenment, they are also guardians of children. It appears that the statue of this saint has been stolen, or is simply missing. The only thing of interest here is another large statue of Buddha.

 

After walking in almost a full circle, I arrive back in Asakusa and head over to the Sumida River. I stare into the glistening waters for far too long, looking directly at the reflection of Tokyo Skytree. The way the river shakes and shimmers distorts the image of the tower, and it does begin to take the form of a tree. After a while, I forget where I am, lost in the flow of time. It is only when my hands begin to feel frozen, that I snap out of the trancelike state that I have allowed my mind to enter. My head returns to the clouds, and I wander around like a lost child, looking for excitement. There isn’t even a Jizō around to guide me. I eventually find a clothing store that displays a wonderful sign. I believe the sign is trying to tell people not to consume food or drink inside their establishment.

Unfortunately for the shop, a translation blunder instead suggests that lactation is forbidden; much to my amazement.

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