The third of February here in Koriyama might have resembled Halloween day in the States, with children in red devil masks chasing one another around the shrine courtyard Sunday night.
At six o’clock, though, the festivities turned more somber as a parade of young girls donning pillbox-like hats festooned with dangling golden coins, young to middle-aged men sporting powder-blue tunics, and bald monks garbed in flashy gold silk robes strode past the audience and into the inner temple like some multigenerational beauty pageant runway.
Since my arrival, stores – and even one of my favorite sumo wrestlers for an NHK commercial advert – have been advertising children’s oni (demon) masks for the event known as Setsubun, or Bean-Throwing Ceremony.
The purpose of the yearly ceremony is to drive away and cleanse one’s house of evil spirits (more later on my favorite characters of Japan’s otherworld – yokai). The ceremony culminates with the actual bean-throwing, which, unfortunately, my companions and I did not witness as the air became colder and my stomach rumbled; nor did it help that a few food stalls had been set up in the courtyard for the event, wafting dreamy scents of cotton candy and kebab that smelled gloriously of bacon and caramel.
Adorably, in the home, one can opt to play the role of the demon, while the other family members chase and pelt them with dried beans. There is also a custom, it seems, of eating one’s age in beans to ensure a good year. A few of my students attested to the ritual of eating roasted beans, but wouldn’t reveal how many.
Frivolity aside, the cozily lit shrine Sunday evening was filled with tinny chimes and pinging bells while the main priest was lowing his prayers. The unusually beautiful cacophony was suddenly interrupted by increasingly louder shouts by the men surrounding the priest, each raising their accordion-folded prayer books high in the air and letting them collapse back into form as a more adroit and ostentatious poker player would shuffle his deck.
Knowing very little about the Shinto religion, I’ll be reading up in the next few weeks on its core beliefs, the symbols attached to it (including the two guard dogs, one open- and the other closed-mouthed), and more of its colorful characters.