Setsubun and beans article in the Japan Times and food superstitions

This month's Japan Times article is about the traditions and superstitions surrounding Setsubun or Risshun, the first day of spring, which is coming up on February 3rd. The focus of the article is on the tradition of mamemaki, or the throwing of roasted beans to drive away oni, the fierce evil spirits that embody bad luck. I've always wondered myself why beans are thrown - and now, through my research, I know. It's really fascinating to find out about all the rituals and traditions of yore, and I get to explore them at depth through writing about them.

While I did know about the bean-throwing tradition, and I have previously written about the ehoumaki tradition of eating a fat, uncut sushi roll which has become popularized all over Japan in recent times, I didn't know about the tradition of hanging grilled sardines (iwashi), until I talked to my mother about it. I'd never heard how she and her siblings used to hang sardine heads under the porch when she was growing up. I love the idea of the neighbohood cats coming to feast on the anti-evil fish heads in the middle of the night, probably thumbing their paws at the silly superstitions of humans.

Here is a lucky setsubun meal with grilled sardines, stewed beans, and mame gohan (soy beans cooked with rice), something they ate in my mom's small hometown in Saitama.


The recipe for the beans and rice is in the article. By the way if you live in Japan or nearby a well stocked Japanese grocery store, you can buy canned cooked soy beans. These will cut down your cooking time considerably.

And speaking of beans - aren't these gorgeous? Can you believe that three of them are variations of soy beans? The ones on the upper left are regular white-beige ones, the ones on the upper right are green soy beans, and the ones on the bottom are red soy beans. (The beans to the left and right are azuki and kuromame or black beans). They are big, round and absolutely delicious. They were sent via my mom by Kamo Dofu Kinki in Kyoto, who makes spectacular soy milk and tofu from them. (Read more about Kamo Dofu Kinki and their tofu-centered restaurant, Sosoan.) Ah, I'm missing Japan so much right now.


The main memory of setsubun that I have as a kid is going to the local Shinto shrine and trying to catch the bags of roasted beans the priests threw while chanting oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi. I would always get an upset tummy from eating too many of those roasted beans, but they were so good.

And finally: remember my stepfather dressing up as Santa for Christmas? It looks like he has more plans for dressing up...


Food superstitions - how about yours?

Japanese traditional culture is chock full of food related rituals, superstitions and beliefs. How about your culture? What kind of food related traditions does it have, and what are their meanings? One that comes to mind for me in Western/European culture is the one about spilling salt being unlucky, and throwing a little pinch of it over your shoulder to counteract that bad luck. What are some others? The more regional and obscure, the better!

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Filed under:  japanese holidays japan traditions writing elsewhere beans japan times

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I live in London these days, but every year (usually on Stir-up Sunday) I get an SMS from my mother in Durham telling me to make a wish. It means she's making our Christmas pudding. Everyone in the household should stir the pudding and make their wish - these days she stirs for me and I make my wish from afar :)

"Stir-up" Sunday is the last Sunday before advent in the Christian calendar; the collect (a kind of short prayer) for the day begins "Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people..." and accidentally reminds people to get on with stirring up their Christmas pudding ingredients.

Alas, if you attend a Church of England service on the fifth Sunday before Christmas, you will nearly always find it celebrated as the feast of Christ the King. The old Collect for the Sunday next before Advent is still there in the book (Common Worship) as a post-communion sentence, but it probably won't be said. Traditions are so easily lost...

Hmmm... Not particularly a food superstition, but Never Point At Rainbows! This I learned as a child in South America. If you point at rainbows, your finger will rot off. Some further clarify that your finger will rot off and a boa constrictor snake will eat it.
-so a little food related, just not food for humans!

I'm from a highly Russian/Ukrainian family, and we've got plenty of food superstitions (although I'm not entirely sure which ones are ethnic in origin and which ones are native to Northeast Pennsylvania), many of which seem to center on the new year. Let's see... On Russian Christmas everyone has to dip a piece of bread in honey (and then eat it). Supposedly good luck for the coming year. On New Years Day, everyone has to eat a piece of pickled herring and we have to have some sort of pork as part of dinner - again for good luck. And on the opposite end of the spectrum, when we bake kolachi or cookies for the holidays, we can't make an odd number - that's bad luck.

Pork and sauerkraut on New Year's Day. Grew up with it in my German descent family in Pennsylvania and have eaten it myself almost every year since. I'm now 73. It's a good luck/prosperity thing. Regardless, I LIKE a meal of pork and sauerkraut and mashed potatoes and applesauce. Add any green vegetable.

A lot of my relatives are superstitious, but my parents largely ignore these influences. So I grew up generally free of it. With that said, one of the two food superstitions that I can think of is the standard chinese one, where on your birthday you should eat noodles, as the length of the noodles signifies long life. The other one is never stick your chopsticks upright on your bowl of rice, something to do with how the chinese present food to their dead.

I grew up in Tennessee, and there was always a tradition of eating collard greens (for money), black-eyed peas (for luck), and pork (chickens scratch backwards, cows stand still, but pigs root forward so if you have pork you'll "move forward" in the new year).

Oh yummy! Thank you for reminding me. I have to remember to go get my ehou maki this year.

No food superstitions except of course growing up with the Holiday meals thing of turkey ect. which I find more fun not to follow.

You might like to know just a couple days ago I saw your book for sale at the main Marukai store in Gardena, California. It was nicely placed on a rack. Hopefully they will add it to their e-store in the future.

Haha, I don't have any, but my husband's Native American. And his tribe is very big on food.

When the wife makes food, everyone has to eat everything prepared, as it honors the creator spirit who made the food you are ejoying. It is also a symbol of respect and honor to the wife, her house and her clan. (In his tribe, the men do not own the house.) And when you visit, you are expected to bring food with you as a gift, as well as eat with the family. (Customs dictate that the wife must offer food to any guests to show respect and honor to both her guest(s) and her own clan, house and husband. And of course, the Creator Spirit!) Refusal to eat is a serious insult. It not only disrespects the husband and wife (and her house and clan), it disrespects your parents and clan as well. (It shows that you were not raised properly and reflects very poorly on your family and clan.) His tribe even believes if you breach this custom, the Creator Spirit will send ogres to torment you! So if you have to go visiting to several families, make sure you're very hungry first! LOL.

My husband didn't tell me any of this when we first started living together. And since I came from a family-culture where you were supposed to have left overs, I kept thinking I wasn't cooking enough for him. Finally one day he looked at me balefully over a giant pot of gumbo and asked if I was trying to make him fat! Haha, he filled me in on etiquette in his culture, and now-days I don't cook a huge ammount of food anymore.

I still chuckle about it to this day.

One tradition I know of for New Years, especially in the Southern United States is the belief that eating Black Eyed Peas on New Years Eve is supposed to bring good luck. I never knew why.

Also, my father usually said that you'd need to clean your plate for clear weather in the new year. But I think that was just his thing.

My family always insisted that we eat Sauerkraut on New Year"s Day. Otherwise, we would find ourselves starving sometime during that year. I think this tradition has Germanic origins.

Year after year, my parents would make their own Sauerkraut in a big ceramic crock. One year, they placed their crock of fermenting Sauerkraut up in the attic where it would be a bit warmer. I remember seeing strands of it hanging from the attic rafters after the crock exploded!

I've never been a fan of Sauerkraut, so I would take very small nibbles of it, trying to satisfy my parent's wishes. My brother later invented something he called "Edible Sauerkraut." He didn't like it, either.

Now, I'll only take a small taste of my husband's New Year's Day Reuben Sandwich, which contains that horrible Sauerkraut.

Hm... I was thinking about the rituals in my culture. But I can't remember a thing. Sylvia said something about rituals for New Years day, but they are more rituals of families ;) I live in Germany, and I never had any food related rituals =/ But I know there are a lot in Europe. And even the Roman Catholic Church has it's own food related rituals. I have an co-worker who don't eats meat on Fridays. The only other food related ritual I know is to toss rice on bride and groom on there wedding. I think also for good luck, as the most food rituals =)

I'm Roman Catholic. Traditionally starting the week of Ash Wednesday to Good Friday, we don't eat any form of meat every Friday(Unless St Patrick's Day fall on Friday, then we can eat Corned beef). Its our version of Lent. I'm not too sure why. I know its about the Resurrection of Jesus(Easter Sunday). On Easter, my family breaks off a piece of a weird pink Communion cracker and eats it. We also eat one piece of: a hard boiled egg, rye bread and kielbasa, before we eat our actual dinner.

This is a great holiday to go to a kindergarten for. I was teaching on a small island, and every year two teachers would dress up as oni. Then we got to go out with the kids and pelt the oni with the beans. A great time, and an interesting look into Japanese Culture. At lunch of course, we had little packets of beans to eat as well.

I can remember only one superstition related to food from my childhood in France. My parents always made sure that the french bread was put on the table with the crust facing skywards. The reason they gave me is that turning the baguette upside down brings bad luck: it was the way the bread for executioners was set on the table. Not quite sure why exactly, though...

blowing out candles on one's birthday cakes is supposed to grant a wish.. whoever gets the bay leaf in their spaghetti is supposed to be the lucky one..

I can think of plenty of food traditions in my family, but none related to luck.

However, in the South it is common to eat a dish called hoppin' john on New Year's Day. It's a dish of black-eyed-peas, rice, and bacon. It's for luck. You pair it with green foods like collards, since that's the color of money.

My parents are Yanks, and the DC area were I was raised isn't truly "South", so I never participated in this tradition. I've only heard about it. I've had the dish outside of New Year's and it is damn tasty!

Yes, of course! I'm from small town East Texas and every New Year, you have to eat your hoppin' john! The more peas in the your bowl, the more luck you're sure to have in the new year. Always eaten with collard or mustard greens for financial luck and cornbread as well. (:

My grandmother had so many traditons and superstitions about food, it's hard to know where to begin. These mainly seemed to involve holiday food and meals. Just a few for Christmas Eve: fresh hay under the Christmas Eve tablecloth (pieces are pulled out after meal, the color and length predicts various things), 12 dishes must be present on the table (some say for the 12 apostles and some the 12 months of the year), no meat or meat products, no arguing or disagreement during the meal or the coming year will not be peaceful, an extra place setting on the table for unexpected guests (reminding us that Joseph & Mary had difficulty finding shelter in Bethlehem), meal cannot begin until first star shows and others. Easter also has a fair share of food related traditions. The one that always made me laugh: an unmarried girl should never empty a glass when drinking, always leave just a little or you will never marry.

I'm from Indonesian descent (I grew up in the Netherlands though) and my mom told me and my siblings never to put rice directly on the floor. It would bring bad fortune over your household. We bought our rice by the bags of several kgs and after grocery shopping, we would put the bags directly in our kitchen cupboard, taking care not to put the bag down.

We, being a combo of southerners and Ohioans, do both hoppin' john and sausage-and-kraut for newyears, usually one on newyears even and one on the day.

My Cuban grandmother always said that whoever gets the bay leaf gets the luck, so I'm glad to see other people say that, too! She would usually put enough bay for everyone, but you can't really tell what's going to be scooped, so sometimes people would get really lucky! She also said you have to have at least one clove of garlic for everyone who will eat the meal--so everyone is guaranteed to get enough and won't starve.

On Cinco de Mayo, when everyone goes out for tacos, we usually go out for Sushi for Boys Day. Not really a superstition, but a tradition.

Oh! And on Feb 2nd, pour milk into the first furrow / hole dug in the garden to help everything come back from the winter and be abundant.


I don't have any food related superstitions in my family, but my Husband came with a whole truck load of crazy Sicilian such-and-such. The most extreme one I can think of is the 12 fish meal on New Years Eve. There are 12 dishes served, and all of them have a different type of fish. The last thing to be eaten is anchovies exactly at midnight (yes, the meal lasts until midnight). We don't do the meal, as it isn't exactly safe to eat all that fish anymore. :( We do eat the anchovies at midnight, though. When you eat them, the wife holds a monetary note (dollar bill in our case) that the Husband has written on, "To my wife, for my family." And you kiss after you swallow the fish. This is supposed to guarantee good food, love and money in the coming year as long as the wife keeps the note in her purse and doesn't spend it.

Also any time we get a new car or a new apartment my Mother in Law throws salt in it. Supposedly for "good health" to keep illness and accidents away.

Playing a game and expressing a wish with the chicken's breast-bone.
Eating 12 grapes when ringing bells for the new year's day.

I don't know if Marie means the chicken's breast bone, or the wishbone (more analogous to the clavicle), but in my family, two people (usually me and my mom) would each hold a side of the Y-shaped wishbone, make a wish, and say "What goes up the chimney? Smoke. May your wish and my wish never be broke." At which point, we'd pull the bone until it snapped, and whomever got the part that included the 3rd fork of the Y was the one who's wish was supposed to be fulfilled.

Here in Italy on New Year's Eve we have this tradition of eating lentils with cotechino (basically a kind of sacked pork meat, very tasty!) - the lentils being the money you will hopefully earn on the year to come!

I can't remember any food superstitions for New Year in Newfoundland, but one superstition in my family, and I'm not sure whether it's confined to my family only, regards what beverage to drink with a traditional dish called fish and brewis. In Newfoundland it has always been traditional to drink tea, (with evaporated milk and sugar in it), and I remember this from my childhood. Everyone drank tea, even kids, and it was poured in the saucer to drink if it was too hot. But with fish and brewis (which is a sort of dry stew kind of thing made from dried salt cod and soaked ships biscuit with fried pork fat drizzled over it), one had to have coffee, not tea. No discussions. Coffee, not tea. When I'm back there later this year I'll have to ask why.

In Finland (or in my family?) we count the amount of black peppercorns from the soup. The number indicates when you are going to get married: one - this year, two - next year, three - someday and four - never. And if there are more than 4, you just continue it again: like for 6 peppers it would mean next year. It's actually quite exciting because some of the peppercorns lie in the bottom of the bowl so you can't be certain how many you are going to get.

And then another one we have is for Christmas porridge (usually rice porridge). We eat this Christmas porridge on Christmas Eve (in my family we always eat it at noon, but some families eat it as breakfast). I'd guess it depends on how early/late the Christmas Eve dinner is eaten. Ok, back to the point: We put one almond to the porridge and who gets it is granted a wish. (But in some families the person gets a small gift etc.) In my family it was "only" a wish as I thought about it when child, but nowadays the wish thing is moe to my liking than a gift (as you'll get plenty of gifts later the same day anyway).

here in austria we have several rites and food superstitions. you have to know that here the catholic belief is somehow strong, especially in the rural areas, and that people like to stick to the old rites we have. nevertheless, most people use to live with these rites without asking.

it is very common to eat fish on fridays, since friday is seen as somewhat "holy" (don't ask me how it is exactly, i wasn't raised as a catholic). even in canteens you usually have fish on fridays.
on karfreitag, most people do not eat meat. karfreitag is the friday just before easter (which is always on a sunday) and the majority of people is rather strict about that.

fasting is something that people do here quite often, also younger people do it. it is done the 40 days before easter sunday. a typical thing would be that people do not eat any sweets, drink beer or whatever they use to consume with most pleasure.
the time before the fasting is called fasching, it is the time people consume faschingskrapfen (marmelade-filled yeastdough, deepfried and covered with powderedsugar, lovely!) all the time. people invented faschingskrapfen in the middle ages to quickly use all the fat, eggs and milk they had and that they were not supposed to eat during the following fasten-time and gain some extra weight.

the fasting nowadays comes from the time when people used to do this in the middle ages, back then they declared beavers as fish (!) and proclaimed ducks as growing on trees (thus declaring them to be fruit) so that they could eat meat during the fast period (which was about half of the year!)
not sticking to the fasting was considered a severe sin.

on easter sunday - the first day on which people do not fast anymore - people usually eat
osterschinken (easter ham),
pinze (that is something like a brioche, but it has a very distinctive form and has - contrasting to a traditional brioche - some lemon peel in it as well. see here (maki, i hope that it is ok if i post this link here?): ),
kren (= finely ground horseradish roots), and, of course
easter eggs (hard-boiled and with very much love painted and decorated eggs. well, at least i do it with much love.).

usually people bring all these things to church on saturday where they can let their food be blessed. i don't bring it to church, but if i cannot have my beloved easter breakfast, i'm grumpy for a rather long time.
a typical rite we have during the easter breakfast is called osterpecken. you and somebody else take one of these decorated eggs each and, holding them on the flat end, crush them against each other (not with too much force, of course). the person whose egg stays intact gets the one from his opponent and is said to have good luck.

btw, i would never ever do this osterpecken on any other day than on easter sundays. i wouldn't eat pinze at any other time than around easter either. neither would i eat faschingskrapfen at any other time than fasching. it just feels plainly wrong to do so. do you know that feeling? it is like eating strawberries in january, it isn't meant to be.

another rite we have is that people turn each new and uncut loaf of bread and make three crosses on the flat side with the knive they will use to cut it. they don't cut the crosses in it, they just scratch the bread's surface. my beloved grandma used to do this as well. handling the bread like this, you bless it, it brings good luck and should ensure enough bread for everybody in the house. (hunger was very prominent for people here for a long time.)

another thing that came to my mind is how groom and bride cut a wedding cake. i guess it is not restricted to austria, though. usually, the newly wed couple holds the knive together when cutting the first slice. the one having the hand above the others is said to be the dominant one in the marriage.

a friend of mine will marry her welsh boyfriend in july and she told me that it is a rite there to keep the upmost part of the wedding cake and eat it much later (1 year? when a child is born? she said something like that...) since it should bring good luck.

oh dear, that is a lot that i've written... ^^

warm greetings!

I know of two traditions in Germany concerning food.
The first one is, somewhat limited to Hesse, eat "Green Sauce" with jacket potatoes on thursday before the easter weekend. We call this day "Green Thursday", so maybe thats the reason für the Green Sauce. And I heard somewhere it reminds of the Last Supper.

Another ritual is to give bread and salt to new neighbours. Their considered the bare necessities and salt had been very precious in the past. So it is basically to great new people!

I can't believe no one mentioned King Cake. It's a New Orleans thing. I'm not exactly familiar as I've not had one, but I think it's had during Mardi Gras or Easter. It's a round (maybe bundt?) cake that is often coloured festively and is baked with a charm of a baby Jesus in it and it's good to be whomever gets the charm. It's similar to the tradition of putting a pound coin in a Christmas pudding and whomever gets that in their portion will have good fortune.

There's another cake (cannot remember whose tradition it is or the time t'a made) that is baked with many charms inside with ribbons hanging out of it and every person (unmarried ladies? I seem to think this is a wedding shower thing) pulls a ribbon and the style of the charm indicates your fortune. There are clovers, wedding rings, bells, horseshoes, mini coins, etc. for a variety of good fortune.

To the commenter above, in the US the fast before Easter is called Lent. Oh and for the wedding cake you're supposed to some on your anniversaries. Something about renewing vows or keeping the marriage young.

My family didn't have superstitions around food, but as someone with OCD I sure developed a bunch. I don't make things in even numbers (cookies, items on a plate).

Also as children in the school cafeteria we had lots of made up rules and superstitions, like which side of the milk carton you opened, or if the Capri Sun squirted on you before you got your straw in it...

I would also like to add that I earnestly attempted the Ehomaki but the roll my fiancé came home with was probably over a pound and the size of a freaking California burrito!! I gave it a good go. Having mono and no appetite didn't help me eat it either. :/

In Mexico (and Spain and elsewhere in Latin America) we have something similar, the rosca or roscón de Reyes, which means the "ring-shaped cake" of the Kings. We eat it on January 6, the day of the Three Kings (the ones who visited the baby Jesus). It is also festively decorated, with colorful cristallized fruit. In Mexico, the person who finds the little baby Jesus doll that's baked in the cake has to have a "tamalada" (a party at which tamales are offered) on February 2, the Day of Candlemas.
After I got married, I was surprised to discover that in Greece it is traditional to eat Vassilopita (Vassilis=King, pita=bread, a sweet egg bread) also on January 6, which is when the Greek (and Armenian) Orthodox churches celebrate Christmas. The Greeks bake a coin in the bread. The tradition is that whoever gets it will be lucky for the year.
Maybe the tradition of eating a colorfully decorated bundt with a little something inside and dedicated to a King or Kinga early in the year goes way back to very old times ...

I thought this was a common superstition until I was much older but when I was a child my mother told me that if you took a piece of someone's wedding cake, wrapped it up and placed it under your pillow you would dream that night of the man you marry.

Another marriage one was to try and peel an apple or potato in one long continuous peel. If you managed to peel it all in one go you would throw the peel over your shoulder onto the floor. The letter the peel closest resembled would be the first letter of your husband's last name or his first name depending on who you talked to.

Also my dad would tell me that finding the bay leaf meant you were going to have good luck.

My dad also told me that when he was growing up his mother would make salt cod in tomato sauce for Christmas Eve because it was supposed to bring good luck.

Chinese do have a lot of food related superstition too, and the almost all the festivals are choked with them!

For example eating fish on Lunar New Year's Eve is a must, so that you'll enjoy 年年有余 (Nian Nian You Yu), i.e. you'll have some savings at the end of every year. It is a pun on the final word 余(Leftovers) read as yu and 鱼(fish) also read yu.

I happened to be in Japan over setsubun and I realised that many combinis stock ehou maki too, but you'll have to preorder them for large amounts. I did not manage to catch any soybeans though....

About the only superstition I can think of that has to do with food that I ever did was something my friends did when I was a kid, so not my family.

You twist an apple stem to remove it and say a letter for each turn, a,b,c,...etc. and what letter the stem breaks on, that will be the first letter of your future spouses name. Kind of funny, and you better hope your future spouse's name doesn't start with X,Y or Z, lol!

Hello, I just feel like letting you know how mouthwatering your websites are. I already knew about justbento, but I somehow let other food interests come in my way (or rather, I stopped needing to make bentos everyday!!). This setsubun meal looks sinfully tasty. I shall follow you more closely now ^-^and try to make some furikake too!!


I'm having twice the fun reading your post and the comments.

As for food superstitions, I remember an old neighbor of ours sharing something about hanging a small bunch of grapes every new year. It's supposedly done to attract good fortune, though she doesn’t buy the whole “luck” thing herself, adding that it would be better if she could just eat all the grapes herself. I think she told me a couple, but this one is what I remember the most.

Although the German Kostüme für Karneval starts again after Christmas as early as the 6th of January with a few activities such as suppers, meeting with the queen and king, and balls, the actual carnival week with the real festivities starts on the Thursday before Ash Wednesday . It is a time of wild celebrations, and the western part of Germany especially (North Rhine-Westphalia and Rhineland-Palatinate), is famous for Karneval celebrations with parades and costume balls and hand-made costumes, and pranks of all sorts!
karneval kostueme

Hi! I come from Italy and my family has some odd tradition related with food. For an example...

If some wine drops on the table, you have to pick it up with a finger, and put it behind your ear or someone else's ear. That gesture brings you or your neighbour luck.

When spring comes, and new fruits and vegetables are ready,
the first time you eat them, you have to make a wish: the new fruit is like a shooting-star. Don't say it aloud.

When my Mom was a child she was forbidden to touch Easter cakes before the date came: if you pick up a tiny candy from a cake, sugar will be changed in chili!!!

On the New Year Eve, in our tradition, we prepare a great dinner; after you eat all dishes, we eat lentils. After such a meal you are obviuosly Ok, not hungry... but they say the more lentils you eat, the more money you make!