3rd February was a Setsubun-sai. the traditional event in the Japanese early spring calendar. Around Japan people gather at local shrines to receive the New Year’s good fortune.
At Susa Jinja an estimated 3,000 visitors from both Shimane and outside Shimane started to queue from early morning to get close to the stages erected for the day’s event. The Head Priest Susa, Priests Susa and Yokoyama, Susa Shrine committee members, local children and invited VIPs, about 90 people in total, started throwing the bags of roasted soy beans and mochi by shouting ‘Fuku-wa-uchi’ (Good Fortune in your house). At other shrines there are a variety of calls. The Head Priest greeted the worshippers commenting that it was the biggest gathering in the last 25 years. The number at Kumano Taisha’s Setsubunsai in Matsue, another famous shrine for this festival, was estimated at 1,500. VIPs invited this year included Izumo Mayor Nagaoka, and Mr Bandai the President of Shimane JA Central (Japan Agriculture Cooperative and JA Banks).
It used to be organised by Mo’s father (having samurai ancestors who protected the shrine, and he was the owner of a 140-year old local tofu maker, hence the convenient supply of soy beans for this event) but it was handed over to the next generation about 8 years ago. The shrine’s committee is working hard to carry on the tradition to preserve Japanese culture and pass it onto future generations despite the decreasing population. It is important for our generation to remind those now living in the cities that festivals bind the society together, and also teach us to respect our elders and learn from them. The local people want city-born youngsters to visit these festivals to re-discover the value of our rich Japanese cultural heritage.
The committee had prepared 25,000 bags of roasted beans and mochi, but it took only five minutes to distribute them. Unique to Susa Jinja, ‘Chinowa’ rings are sold on Setsubun date rather than in June. The Chinowa is a symbolic talisman rope for family protection originating in Susano-o’s ‘Somin Shorai’ myth. Other shrines normally have a large Chinowa ring standing in the shrine ground for worshippers to walk through.
2,100 rings were made by Ohshima-san, a local carpenter of traditional Japanese architecture, but they were all sold out in the morning. The ring is made from fresh rice plant stems specially cut for this, while the rice is yet to ripen, in order to supply the best quality strong straw (the rice leftover is consumed in special way to avoid wastage). The newly made ring is bought and worn round the neck until the wearer returns home, when it is hung above the front door till next year’s Setsubunsai festival.
During the festival Kagura ‘Somin Shorai’ is performed by the Kagura group belonging to Susa Jinja.
“Once, when a Kami (god) called Mutou-no-kami from the North Sea was travelling to the South Sea, the sun went down. At this place there were brothers Somin Shourai and Kotan Shorai, The elder brother Somin Shourai was very poor, but the younger brother was very rich owning as many as 100 warehouses. The Kami asked the younger brother Kotan Shorai if he could stay the night, but he was refused. The elder brother Somin Shourai kindly welcomed the Kami. However, he was so poor he could only offer a straw bed instead of sheets, and could only offer a poor millet dinner instead of rice. It was all he could do to welcome the Kami.
“The next day, the Kami left. Several years later, the Kami dropped in at Somin Shorai’s on the way home with his eight children. He said “To respond to Kotan Shourai’s behaviour, and to repay you for letting me stay the night, I would like to do something for you. Do you have children and grandchildren?” Somin Shourai replied “I have a wife and a daughter”. The Kami continued “Wear this Chinowa ring made of reeds around your waist.”. He did as he was told. That night, everyone in the village was killed, except Somin Shourai, his wife and their daughter.
“Afterwards the Kami explained “I’m Susano-o-no-mikoto. In the future when you face any plague, your descendants must tell people that they are Somin Shourai’s descendants, and wear a Chinowa ring. All who wear a Chinowa ring will be protected from plague.”
“Because of this myth the Chinowa Ring is regarded as a spiritual Shinto talisman against plague and disasters. At Susa Jinja Chinowa rings and cards bearing the words “Somin Shourai’s descendants” are given to visitors at every Setsubun sai festival. Visitors wear the Chinowa ring around their necks to take it home, then hang it at the entrance porch or the door for protection from epidemics and disasters.”
– extract from Susa Jinja website (English page will be available shortly)