Thursday, February 13, 2014

Setsubun: Getting hit in the nose with tradition

There is nothing quite like a centuries-old tradition of getting smacked in the nose by a rock-hard rice cake. Really, there isn't, I assure you. But it was all in the name of warding off evil for the year. And I don't know about you, but I think the less evil the better, even if I have to endure some pain.

In all fairness, it was my own fault I took a hard rice cake, called a mochi, to the nose like an ill-prepared hockey player. When I had been invited to this event on the island of Miyajima by my friend Chie, she had said that beans and rice are thrown to the crowd to ward off evil in the coming spring. OK, sounds good. I am picturing beans and grains of rice raining down on the crowd, like confetti, or a really big send-off for a newly wed couple. I did not plan on small hockey pucks being launched at my face. I should have asked more questions.

But I didn't. So on a very foggy Feb. 3 Superbowl Monday morning (I know this sounds odd to some of you, but because of the time difference, the entire base gets the Monday after Superbowl Sunday off because the Superbowl is live at about 8 a.m. and it just wouldn't be fair to the Marines if they missed the big game. Boo-hoo. The kids still have to go to school, though) Chie, another friend of mine, Brenda, and I headed off to Miyajima island (about a half hour away from Iwakuni) to enjoy the Japanese tradition of setsubun. It was going to be at the Dai-Shoin Temple, which is at the top of a hill, at the top of a couple hundred stairs. Fortunately for us, there are some things to do as you climb.

On either side of those brightly colored banners are bells to ring. You also drop some yen in to a little wooden box as you ring the bell and bow three times. I am not sure what the whole significance is, but I try to be respectful and follow the mantra "When in Rome, do as the Romans do," or however the phrase goes.

The steps are lined with Dai-hannyakyo Sutra. According to info Brenda found, these are 600 volumes of scripture introduced from India by a Chinese Monk named Sanzo. It is believed that touching these sutras will bring you enormous fortune. I touched them. I touched them all!
There was a large gong to ring on the way up, as well. I rang it. And dropped some more yen in a wooden box.

There was plenty of small stone statues... each with his own headgear. Again, according to some info Brenda found, these are 500 Rakan statues, and each statue has a different face and represent the disciples of Shaka Nyorai. Chie said that elderly women crochet and knit hats for them to wear during the winter. Other statues had hats and scarves.

Once we got to the top of the steps, about five minutes before the festivities were set to start, this is what we saw:

It looked pretty reasonable until we got past that big yellow sign. And then we saw this:

 And this:

 And this:

Yep... wall-to-wall Japanese people, with a handful of foreigners scattered about. I was one of said foreigners. We also caught up with our friend, Jessica and her husband. Brenda and I took refuge toward the back of the crowd, near a Japanese photographer's rickety ladder. It seemed to be as safe as place as any to avoid bumping in to anyone. And since I am "Big OK," it is not easy to tuck yourself away safely. The good news about being "Big OK" is that I am six inches taller than the average Japanese elderly person and could see everything very well. And those tiny, elderly Japanese people had no problems with bumping in to me. Sometimes with a friendly smile, sometimes not. Either way, they can pack quite a push when they are determined to get somewhere or something, as I was soon to find out.

I'm going to fast-forward through the next 15 minutes or so. This gentleman came out and introduced the festivities and entertained us for awhile by playing a flute-like instrument... all in Japanese. Well, the words were in Japanese. The music was in ... notes, I guess. A woman sang for us. Not being musical by nature, I entertained myself by taking pictures of people taking pictures.

And taking a selfie for Facebook so my Mom could see why I didn't answer her Skype call. Sorry, Mom... busy mingling with the short people.

Then they trotted out about 30 dignitaries. All of them were born the year of the horse, which is what 2014 is. So, these people were 12, 24, 36, 48, 60, 72, 84, 96, 108, 120, 132 or 144 years of age. That's as far as my 12-times times tables goes in my head. Brenda and I did the "How old do you think that person is?" game as we waited.

There was some singing, and apparently the master of ceremonies was very funny because every so often the entire crowd would laugh... except for the handful of foreigners who looked around trying to see if any of the Japanese were looking at us. We might be the butt of the joke and not know. Well, at least that's what I was doing. No one was looking at me, so I figured I could stop being so self-centered and realize the event was not all about the lone blond girl in the sea of Japanese people.

And then it was time to throw some stuff around. You could tell because the dignitaries reached behind them for shallow boxes full of envelopes and flat, round things and small brown things. And the crowd started getting restless. After some kind of count, items were flung in to the air to the waiting hands and baseball gloves (yes, one guy actually had a baseball glove... I did not see him catch more than me, so I don't think it was necessarily a good idea) of the crowd below.

The lady on the left may have been the wife of one of the gentlemen on stage. She kept shouting and waving at him until he subtly waved back.
Of course, at one point I put my camera away for awhile so that it wouldn't get damaged. There were elderly people diving everywhere, tripping and falling over each other... I was really nervous about broken hips. I tried not to jostle these seemingly delicate people. But, after a couple of elbows to the back and stomach, and seeing how they bounced right back up after they got knocked down, I used my height for all it was worth. I did not push, I did not jostle, but I did reach beyond their reach in front of them to snag some bags of beans and a rice cake. I may be "Big OK" but it is paying off now!

Now, Kharma must have been watching because as I went to snag a bag of beans away from a particularly pushy 85-year-old, I didn't see the white mochi coming straight for my face. BAM! It hit me right in the nose, and dropped on to the front of my jacket. I saw some stars, and tried to wiggle my nose to see if it was still there. I felt for blood... none. Grabbing the mochi from my chest and shoving it in to my jacket pocket so I could chastise it later, I ducked behind some of the other people to avoid getting hit while I continued to access my injury (easier said than done when you're 6 inches taller than the majority of them).

At this point, since the Japanese are very fair and communal people, it was time for the front of the pack to go to the back so that the back people had a shot at the loot. How refreshing! Can you imagine Americans doing this at a rock concert or on Black Friday? Um... no.

I recovered from my injury free of blood (my nose was tender the next day, but it appears no permanent damage was done) and I ended up with four bags of beans, two mochi, including the offending white one, and a maple leaf cake. I'll explain the small white box in the photo below in a moment.

You are supposed to eat the same number of beans as your age. I ate 37 beans. Xan was disappointed that he only got to eat 7.
Some Japanese people had more than a dozen bags of beans. Who needs that many beans? Are you giving them to friends, family, neighbors? I mean, some of these people were elderly, but they certainly weren't THAT elderly.  Once the throwing was done, the dignitaries left the stage and people regained their sanity and got back with the loved ones they had shoved aside earlier.

I found Chie and she told me to open my bags to look for numbers. These numbers corresponded to the hundreds of prizes that awaited the winners under a tent. Wait, what? More prizes? I would have knocked down WAY more elderly Japanese people if I had known that. According to the posters I had somehow ignored earlier, I could win a toaster oven, a bicycle, a travel mug... not to mention a dozen other parting gifts. So, I looked through my four bags...

and found one with a number.

Of the five people in our group, three of us got numbers, all #3. We wouldn't know what prize #3 was until we got to the tent after standing in this line:

It only took about 15 minutes to get through the line. Meanwhile, Chie explained this massive yellow chart. Based on your age, it tells you whether or not you will have a good, bad or so-so year. Xan will have a great year, Will will have a so-so year, Rodney will have a good year and I am going to have a so-so year. I feel sorry for all the babies turning 1 this year. Their year is going to suck. Apparently, if you are over 90, you have no luck at all.

 Once we got to the front of the line, the tent looked like this:

When it was my turn, I handed over a number and I was handed a small white box.

A kitchen timer... that looks like an iPod knock off.... made in China... with instructions in Japanese. And, it's pink. Well worth the nose injury and 15 minutes of standing in line.

My pleather boots were a mess from people stepping all over them in the damp dirt. I say damp dirt because it wasn't quite mud.

Once we had all gotten our kitchen timers, it was time to head home, back down the hundreds of steps with the lucky scriptures.

Me, Brenda, Chie and Jessica
I took my loot home (along with some pastries from a Japanese bakery - yum!) and showed it to my family. I made them eat the appropriate number of beans. They taste a little like nuts.

If we had been a Japanese family, Rodney would have worn an "oni" - or demon's - mask and the kids would have thrown beans at him to chase the oni away.. And I, as the woman of the house, would have gotten to clean up the mess. So, we skipped that tradition. I figured the nose injury was enough of a sacrifice from me.

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