top shelf: Setsubun demon masks, second shelf: a variety of soy beans for the celebration
Though I've been in Japan a little over two decades, I have never taken much notice of the holiday Setsubun. This is in large part because I associate celebration of the day with kids and I neither have children nor close friends with them. The truth is that I have been vaguely aware of the holiday and some of its practices since the early years of my stay, but never really paid much attention until I started seeing Setsubun-themed candy in the past few weeks.
Setsubun includes a custom called mamemaki, which is where the head of household (usually the father of the family) puts on a demon mask and the children or other family members throw soybeans at him to drive away evil, draw luck, and purify the home. I say that I associate this holidays with children, because I have never known a Japanese adult who carried out mamemaki without kids. Childless adults don't usually perform this little role play. My guess is that most of them have far more interesting role plays involving long-celibate samurai and curious geisha or helpful gladiators and lost, grateful, and randy goddesses who have fallen to earth.
Though I'm sure Setsubun-themed foods have been around since long before I was born, I wasn't writing a snack blog prior to last year. This year, I decided to do a week's worth of Setsubun-related foods as a way of exploring the food culture end of the holiday. Setsubun is celebrated on February 3 so next week seemed like a good time to offer up those reviews. Some of the foods are modern candy with a Setsubun theme, and others are more traditional.
I could have easily done two weeks worth of Setsubun-related foods. While I was at one of my local markets today (Peacock), I saw that there was a wide variety of snacks covering both the purification end and the demon personification. One of the coolest was a package of big demon "feet" stick-less, lollipop-style hard candies. A bag full of big transparent yellow feet was hard to resist, but the price (358 yen or $3.93) and the prospect of all of the tooth decay from sucking on that many sugary feet put me off (though it does sound like a fetishist's dream). There were also demon "clubs" made out of what I'm guessing was some sort of carbohydrate backbone coated in a curious brown coating and nuts to make it look like a caveman-style bludgeoning device.
Since I couldn't possibly buy and consume everything, I made a few selections which I think may have broader application to my readers. By that I mean that these are foods which you may be able to find as imports or that might be available in Asian groceries (albeit from different manufacturers than the ones I sampled).