Setsubun – the face smashing festival

We’ll get back to a possible third part in the Great France Adventure 2007 saga soon, but for now, I thought it might be nice to have a change of pace and blog about something Japan-related.

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Who is this man and why is he my mortal enemy? Read on to find out!

One of the things that Japan is well known for is its love of festivals. Japanese have a festival for absolutely everything…! – there are festivals for gigantic penises, festivals for igloos, festivals for oysters, and even festivals for the casting out of demons via the mechanism of hurling tiny beans at them. The latter – referred to as “Setsubun” – will be the topic of today’s post.

While setsubun(節分)technically refers to a division between the seasons, in practice it is usually glossed as “the bean throwing festival.” The basic idea is that you take some beans, gather your children ’round, then proceed as a family to hurl said beans out an open door or window whilst simultaneously explaining to them their deep and profound connection with 2000 years of Japanese culture and tradition. The children, for their part, are probably wondering what mom and dad are smoking, or at least that’s what I would be thinking if I was a Japanese kid happily enjoying my one pitiful day a week of freedom from the oppressiveness of 10 hour school days 6 days a week by playing a little hyper-realistic cell-processor powered Ridge Racers 7, on my brand new 75,000yen Playstation 3 and my parents dragged me away from that and were all like “hey Taro you know what would be fun? Throwing beans out a window!”

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Introducing the lovely Stephie and Ryu, who have no idea what’s about to hit them…

Okay, so perhaps I’m being a little facetious (“fahhh-sehh-tea-UHs” as my friend pronounces it) with that last part. In reality, the tossing of the beans is supposed to serve two purposes. First, it’s supposed to cast out any “demons” that are around (I guess just chillin’ in your crib) and secondly, it’s supposed to invite “good luck” into your life, because, as we all know, there’s nothing good luck loves more than a snack of freshly scattered beans.

Mmm… beans.

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Nor for that matter, does poor b.a….

In accordance with this theme, as you’re tossing the beans out the window, you’re suppose to shout “Oni ha Soto! Fuku ha Uchi!” which means (amazingly enough) “Out with the demons! In with good luck!” The best part of this is that they even sell these oni (“demon”) masks in the stores/supermarkets right next to the beans which you can have somebody put on to play the role of the demon, and then they stand outside so you can pelt them with beans. Isn’t two millennia of cultural tradition fun? ;)

Now that’s how setsubun is celebrated in most people’s houses. However, since I live by myself, posting pictures of throwing beans at one of my pandas dressed up as a demon probably wouldn’t make for the most interesting entry in the world. Thus, we return full circle to the Japanese love of festivals and realize that even though you can celebrate Setsubun at home, imagine how much more awesome it would be if you celebrated it outside at a temple…! And how much more awesome would it be if you invited sumo wrestlers and instead of gently tossing single beans, they hurled gigantic bean bags at people with all their strength…!? Ahh yes, that would be awesome and what could possibly go wrong/result in injury with that idea?

And so it was that I found myself, the lovely Bethann, and two other friends making their first appearance here on the pandablog, the lovely Stephie (who can sing an operatic rendition of 50 Cent’s “P.I.M.P.” which has to be heard to be believed) and the equally lovely Ryu – over in what is fast becoming my favorite temple Narita-san last Saturday to bear witness to the spectacle of one of the largest Setsubun celebrations in Japan.

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That pink shoulder thing is technically called a “kataginu” (肩衣)

Now I should probably qualify the phrase “large setsubun celebration”, since many of you likely have no idea what constitutes a “small” or even a “medium” setsubun celebration. This particular setsubun celebration was attended by several thousand people, several hundred police officers, quite a few national TV news crews, at least a half dozen foreigners including one half-panda, at least twice that number of Japanese celebrities (many daytime soap stars which I completely failed to recognise as a) I don’t own a TV and b) I am not a stay-at-home Japanese housewife (anymore)) and so forth.

Oh, and an entire phalanx of gigantic Sumo wrestlers, including the current ranking Yokozuna, the Mongolian-born Asashoryu, all of whom were wearing big poofy-shouldered pink things that made them look like chubby Romulans. It was actually very cute, and the girls concluded that they “looked like giant cuddly teddy bears! Don’t you just want to go run up and give them a hug? Oooohhh googooo…” [...fade into the random coo-ing noises girls make when encountering a sleepy puppy or a baby dressed up as a sunflower]*

*(you know Anne Geddes has never sold a calendar to a man in her life, it’s only women who buy these sorts of things ;) )

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The girls swooning over the sumo wrestlers…

Since all these famous people were going to be there and this is Japan, where any event isn’t an event unless you have to queue for 3 hours before you can get in, we left super early in the morning to get a good spot. Despite arriving at our destination three hours early, we found the place already humming with people, everyone jostling and jockeying to get a decent vantage point. Now this mad scrabble for ideal positioning was not due only to a desire to catch a glimpse of a famous celebrity, but also by the fact that said celebrities would be tossing beans into the crowd, which you were supposed to catch (and in theory, eat, as eating the same number of beans as your age plus one is supposed to ensure good luck). With several thousand in attendance, a spot near the stage goes a long way towards boosting your chances of catching some beans. Coincidentally, it also boosts your chances of getting blasted in the face by an overzealous sumo wrestler, but I’m getting ahead of myself here.

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My father always told me never to trust men wearing gigantic pink shoulder pads

Inspired by everyone’s frenetic dashings, we promptly pushed a couple of old ladies out of the way and staked out a small fiefdom about 10 meters from the main platform, then proceeded to viciously snarl at anyone who dared to encroach upon our domain during the next 2 hours. As the time for the main event drew near, we began to notice a steady influx of Japanese policemen trickling into the crowd. Each officer clutched a long strap with a non-adjustable handle on each hand, the purpose of which we speculated on (“maybe they’re gonna use it to arrest all the gaijin”) until suddenly, responding in unison to some invisible cue, the policemen – who unnoticed by us had actually formed themselves in concentric circles throughout the crowd – outstretched their hands and grabbed hold of the handle extended by the policeman next to them and deftly partitioned the crowd into circular segments (like an onion, with the stage at the center) separated by a thin blue line of Japanese cops.

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Japanese thin blue line. Their stupid gigantic white hats kept ruining my shots.

“Damn, that was pretty nifty!” murmured Bethann.

“Yeah!” added Ryu.

Only Stephie raised a note of concern.

“Uhhh… guys? We’re kind of trapped in this little area now aren’t we?”

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Stephie raising the alarm we tragically chose to ignore…

I, busy fiddling with my camera, didn’t really pay her questioning much mind. That is, until over the course of the next 5 minutes, the concentric onion circles of crowd began to slowly contract and smush together and the loudspeakers started blaring cautionary statements like “be careful not to punch each other in the face when you grab for the beans”, “beware of elbows” and my personal favorite: “beware of flying beans.”

“Hmmm…” my inner panda voice mused to itself. “I am starting to get a bad feeling about this…”

But as is usually the case with me, by then it was too late. As the sumo wrestlers and celebrities began to assemble in the entryway in anticipation of their upcoming bean-throwing duties, hundreds of latecomers rushed towards the central temple grounds, simultaneously exerting a tremendous force and pressing crush of crowd from the outside in, which rippled – despite the best efforts of the concentric police chains – towards the center, smushing us so tightly together that it actually became very hard to move or even breath. Even more alarmingly, I suddenly became very aware that yes, panda, there were elbows flying through the air very close to my face.

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I began to have a very bad feeling when he started eyeing me up…

“What,” Bethann began trepedaitiously, “have we gotten ourselves into?”

“This is gonna be fun, man.” added Ryu, though as a Japanese boy having grown up in these conditions, he seemed a lot less concerned with the prospective of a terrible death by trample-ation than the rest of us.

Stephie, for her part, let out a mangled yelp, then went strangely silent for a moment. As I struggled to turn around, I caught sight of her face bearing a very pained expression.

“Are you okay?”

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Ryu informing us how he’s going to catch all the beans…

“I think someone just broke my foot,” she winced, struggling to tend to her poor foot which unfortunately had just been stomped upon by some girl teetering atop platform boots in front of us. Her reaction made me instantly flash back to this time I went to a Limp Bizkit/Method Man concert way back in the day, wearing a pair of those super wide legged Jnco jeans that dragged on the ground, then unwittingly wound up in the mosh pit where I almost died a terrible terrible death as I frantically tried to pull their bagginess off the floor and the people jumping all around, landing and trampling them, accidentally pulling me down towards the floor in the process. My god. Who wants to die at a Limp Bizkit concert? How incredibly embarrassing.

Anyway, back to the current mosh-pit situation shaping up in the middle of one of Japan’s holiest temples. As we squirmed around in our tiny little standing area, the sumo wrestlers and other assorted celebrities slowly picked their way up to the middle of the stage, where boxes upon boxes of beans were stacked atop one another, opened, and waiting for their contents to be scooped up and flung into the crowd. After everyone was in place, the signal was given, and suddenly, with only a collective rushing intake of air from the crash of people all around me as warning, the air was filled with the ferocious opening salvo of what was soon to become a withering aerial legume assault.

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The shot heard round the world (well, temple grounds)

As I watched – foolishly – through my camera lens, the initial shots came careening down and crashing into the crowd, and I suddenly realised two very alarming things. The first is that while when setsubun is celebrated in houses one only throws a handful of loose beans, when setsubun is celebrated outdoors in this particular temple, one does not throw loose beans but rather hefty beanbags…! Beanbags, dear readers, is what you might recall police S.W.A.T. teams fire into crowds of rioters to disperse and injure them. They are technically classified not as “non-lethal”, but rather as altogether more unsettling “less-lethal weapons“, mainly due to the fact that if one should get struck, say, in the face, by a bean bag traveling at a high velocity, one might very well find themselves in considerable distress. And it is in fact these very bean bags that are at this very moment hurtling towards my face.

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A sumo wrestler can do a lot of damage with this…

The second alarming bit of info my very-slow-on-the-uptake panda brain managed to belatedly process is that as Stephie astutely observed earlier, the concentric rings of police and the crushing press of the crowd basically meant we were trapped in place as protein rich vegetarian meat alternative death rained down upon us from on high. It was like that scene in Braveheart where thousands of arrows come raining down in a dark death clouded arc upon the poor Scots and you look up with the camera view and even though you’re in the safety of your own living room you’re like “ooooOOOOOHHHH SHIIIIITTTT!!!!!!!” and instinctively fling yourself behind the couch cushion/your significant other to escape cinematic injury. Only dear readers, this was not a movie and I did not have any couch cushions or significant others handy with which to ward myself from the doom cascading from the heavens. (fortunately for my friends they were behind me or else they might very well have suddenly found themselves repurposed towards this end).

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The first salvo begins…

And lest you think I am hyperbolizing – as I am oft wont to do – I would like you to imagine the phrase “like shooting fish in a barrel”. Are you imagining that phrase? Now while keeping that image in your head, slowly replace those words until it becomes “like hurling heavy beanbags at immobile foreigners trapped in a crowd about 25 feet away from you from an elevated wooden platform.” And then add “oh and you’re a gigantic muscular sumo wrestler.” It was, as they say, all fun and games until someone got hurt, and that someone would have been the random old lady who took one to the dome with a rather sharp and alarming plastick-y “srrrMMMMGAAAACCCKKK!” as the beanbag caught her with a glancing blow to the temple. She stumbled back for a second, dazed and shell shocked, then bumped up against the chest of a larger guy behind her trapped by the surging crowd and could retreat no further. I watched as she valiantly tried to struggle to her feet only to catch another round straight in the forehead, chin snapped straight back from the force of the impact as she slowly sank into the murky darkness of the trampled ground below the crowd line, one hand upstretched piteously, palm splayed, grasping uselessly at the heavens, mouth echoing out its last plaintive gasp: “Damn you ….. beeeeaaaannnnnsss………”

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Sadly, the elderly are always the first to go….

As I experienced what can only be described as a bizarre mixture of shock, amazement and regret at having failed to have my camera ready to capture the moment of impact (it would have landed me on the cover of Time Life for sure, photo of the year or what not) I turned to my right, shouting:

“Holy Crap dude did you just see that woman catch one to the cranium…!?”

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The police turn and begin to flee in terror…

…only to see Bethann get winged in the nose by a round ricocheting off of the jaw of the man next to her. As she windmill-arced around in a half circle like Sonni Liston meeting his end off a Muhammad Ali knockout punch, hands flung up desperately to try and protect against the next incoming salvo, I lost sight of her, the noise and din of the crowd swelling above my voice shouting out in alarm. I whip around to the left, the whistling spawling sonic trails of bean bags crashing into people left and right, to see Stephie and Ryu ducking for cover and for a second I have this moment of clarity: is this what it feels like to be an embedded journalist in a war zone…?

“Why yes, yes it is Panda. Now go out there and capture history! What’s the worst that could happen?” mouths that little voice inside my head that has usually preceded actions in my life that have turned out less-than-positively for me (other past “little voice inside my head” greatest hits: “suuuuurrreeee Panda, you should definitely squirt that hornet’s nest with your super soaker! What’s the worst that could happen?” / “How hard could it be to jump off the top bunk and to do a full forward flip in mid-air? I mean, Ninjas do it all the time! What’s the worst that could happen?” / “I definitely think you should try and perform a parking brake power slide drift around the corner in your 1994 Plymouth Sundance! I mean, you do it on Super Mario Kart all the time! What’s the worst that could happen?”).

…and thusly inspired, I foolishly swing my camera up, up, up towards the sky, towards the stage, towards the blueness of the stratosphere, towards the glinting gleaming of sunlight off careening plastic bean bags, soaring above the flinging hands of people going down left and right, the receding din of the crowd, the whistling impact of legume artillery, finger moving towards the shutter release, the smoothness of plastic beginning its caress against the well worn ridges of fingertips, the softness of touch, the toothed circumference of the focus ring, the crispness of reality parallaxing through the lens and the whole world falls silent, a pause, a pulse, a gap into crystalline stillness ……

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Celebrating after he takes me out with a shot to the face…

… and then my whole world explodes as my face erupts in a cacophony of pain, agony and alarm and my vision turns muted, concussive and harsh.

“I’ve been hit!!!” I scream out, voice ragged, as I tumble backward from the impact. As the lens and the viewfinder fall from my face – their narrowness of focus preventing me from seeing the incoming fatal round until it was too late – the crashing noise and screams and furor of the bean mediated slaughter pierce through my eardrums, like that scene in the opening of Saving Private Ryan where the soldiers are struggling through the ocean to the beach and when the camera is underwater it’s all quiet and eerie and then when it surfaces you hear the ferocious assaulting din of battle crashing into your brain.

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The spoils of war…

“What’s happening!? Am I going to live?!” I shout out to no one in particular, thinking only of my fallen comrades. Taken out by a bean bag in the middle of backwater Japan… what a tragic end to a life that I had not yet begun to live! As my vision starts to fade and my knees buckle and give out, sinking down towards my inevitable, ignominious demise at the trampling stampede of feet at the ground, I catch glimpse of a grinning sumo wrestler, the one who hurled the fatal shot, smirking and smug as our eyes make contact. “Oh yes…. that was me Panda” he mouths.

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Maybe I can write my obituary on one of these ema…?

“Wait… why do you speak English? And how do you know my name?” I reply, my whole world going woozy.

Wait. I’m imagining this. This…. this isn’t real!!! It… it can’t be…! my brain shouts to itself. This…. this is just shell shock panda! You’re imaging all of this! Pull yourself together!! If you lose it now, we’re done for for sure!! But it’s too late, as my world collapses into the surreal, the noise and furor of the bombardment recedes into the faint echoes of the heavens and I wonder, my last thought ever for this world, who will tell my homies back home of my valiant last stand, of my last staggering bean-filled final moments…. would they “mourn me till they joined me” as 2Pac used to say? Would they pour out a little liquor for me in memory of my passing? Would the final fateful pictures I snapped be developed and posted on the wall of a somber gallery somewhere, a tribute to all the dearly departed setsubun fallen? Is this really all there is to life? Michael Panda R.I.P. Beloved Blog Writer and Panda Fanatic “He Lived Life Fast And To The Fullest But The Beans Were Faster”…?


And then – just like that – it’s over.

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Stumbling back to the station…

“Thank you all very much for coming to Setsubun! Let’s have a big hand for our sumo wrestlers and celebrities! Please make sure to file out in a neat and orderly fashion! Come again!”

The tinny reverb of the loudspeakers reaches up through the clouds surrounding the metaphorical light I’m drifting towards and harshly pulls me back to earth. Great. Dante gets the beautiful Beatrice, I get some 70 year old Japanese dude with a megaphone and a really bad case of phlegm.

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The walking wounded…

The smoke and haze clears and I slowly struggle to my feet. I glance around and notice my friends slowly stirring as well. Our eyes meet, a mutual look of shell shocked amazement and muted horror as we mentally share a “Did that just really happen….!?”

After a moment seemingly stretching into eternity, Ryu mutely raises his hand and crookedly points towards the exit. Exchanging nothing but the palpable dumbfounded amazement of survivors of a great cataclysm, we gingerly turn and limp our broken way to the exit, vowing never to speak of this ordeal for as long as we live.

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Gaijin-smash accosting a random old man to take a picture of his cute doggah.

Or at least until next February 3rd.

And that, my friends, was Setsubun!!

Now listening to: “Xzibit – Get Your Walk On”

This is one of his rugged-est, thumping-est club bangers ever. I still love it after 6 years. You can catch the music video over here on youtube. [warning: explicit lyrics]

From the home of the toe tag, lowriders and body bags
earthquakes, police with automatics and nerve gas
Learn fast or get left behind quick (yeah)
You testify, you get wrapped in plastic (hell yeah)
Xzibit turn your SUV into a casket
melt your body parts in a tub full of sulfuric acid
Drastic measures we take just to get by
for all the shit you gotta go through to get high
Stand by, do or die for the West coast
Wanna fuck with Xzibit but can’t come close motherfuckers

Tell y’all people to call my people
Recognize all men are not created equal
I’m lethal, all y’all ******* remain see-through
Only the kid from “The Sixth Sense” can peep you (DEAD PEOPLE!)
When I get through the world’ll be a better place
A little Jesus Christ mixed with some Leatherface
Go find some punch to spike, find some dope to lace
Pull a pistol from my waist, ***** reach for space
Smack the taste out of your mouth if you talk shit
or hit so hard to the chin it make you back flip
My transcript number one up in this conference
It’s nonsense, all y’all ****** want is conflict
Only associate with pros and the convicts
Xzibit roll up in the spot with a bomb bitch
and then bounce with a couple, motherfuck a tussle
You never have enough muscle to stop a ***** hustle…

BONUS: for all of you wondering what’s up with the “This Is NOT A Dance” at the end: Wikipedia entry on Cripwalking.

11 Reactions

  1. Ben

    I remember my family writing our own shinto during our trip years ago in Japan. How I long to visit Japan again… (I may indeed be visiting Japan again for my exchange program at school.) Yet again, great pictures Panda!

  2. coolnahalf

    i love it when you comment on my blog. cause that lets me know that you just updated yours. and man, when you update, you UPDATE.
    hi-def pictures, running commentary, and lay-out like a lay-out gangsta!
    you’re like the britney spears of blogging.
    no news from you for months on end, and then all of a sudden you’re in, like, 3 sex tapes, and your junk is posted all over the internet.
    (you know, except you post about france. same same.)
    by the way, the water bottle had words like, “love”, “peace”, “joy”, and one the front, “forgiveness” written on it.
    it’s a derivitive of this guy’s study:

  3. ashan

    Dear panda,
    Indeed, I am terrible — absolutely terrible — at updating, commenting, and generally attending to this blogging business. *hangs head in shame* If you can imagine my days as a repetition of classes, eating, reading, and sleeping, however, you already have all my blog material in mind. ‘Tis sad, I know.
    I haven’t kept up with my blogroll very well either, but I have seen a bit of your new entries, and it seems you had an interesting time in europe. But how is it possible that you had NO FISH AND CHIPS IN ENGLAND? o_o le shock!
    I must go write my due-in-four-hours paper now. After that (and some sleep), I shall heed your words and update. How you motivate me! (i.e. thank you, I do need a push in the right direction now and then. :)

  4. felix

    I love the flying bean bag pics! The new camera just paid for itself right there. By the way, were those circus peanuts I see in the bags?
    Great to see another Japan update! And yes, the Japanese looooove their seasons. I read somewhere that, related to related to Cha-Do and tea kaiseki, they have 42 “seasons” in the year.

  5. momo

    While in most cases I would support you, I have to back out on this one. Even with the two of us, we are no match for a sumo wrestler bearing bags of rock-like beans!!
    Hey, for your Paris-At-Night shots, did you use an external flash? My camera finally came in and I’m still figuring out how to use manual controls!!

  6. lizb

    i loooove the sumo costumes! you could never get an american manly man to wear that shit. :3

  7. Gidget Bananas

    Shocking pink sumo costumes, no less! How Schiaparelli!
    And what kind of beans are those? They look more like .58 caliber musket shot than your average legume!

  8. christine

    coolnahalf (cool & a half) is very witty. i like his britney spears description of you. though i did not read the entry, he makes it so that you WANT to read the entry.

  9. Pia

    Your captions make me laugh. And your photos are dynamic, as always . . . Thanks for the eye candy.
    I was happy to see those ema blocks in one of your pics . . . reminded me of my time in Japan. I still have a lot of pictures to upload on my site.