Japan Folklore: Setsubun, how to drive away the demons of winter to welcome spring


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Traditional Japanese culture has always been characterized by a constant and loving observation of the natural world, its manifestations and its seasonal cycles. Therefore, the attention given to spring, the special moment when nature awakens in all its creatures the necessity of renewal, must not marvel.

This season is celebrated in Japan with the haru matsuri (春祭, spring festival), a set of events whose beginning is marked by the occurrence of Setsubun (節 分). In the traditional Japanese lunisolar calendar, in fact, every change of season is introduced by a day called, indeed, setsubun (literally "division of the seasons"). Spring setsubun, which falls on 3 February, represents the last day of winter and the day before the start of the new season. It marks the transition from "Taikan" (大寒, big cold) to "Risshun" (立春, first day of spring) and is therefore the most favorable moment for a special "cleaning" from winter burdens, which will drive away evil spirits and favor the entrance of the new life-giving energy. This is the meaning of the traditional "demon expulsion" that takes place on this day through different rituals and customs.


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Ancient rituals and family fun

The most famous ritual is undoubtedly the mamemaki (豆 撒 き), which is the launch of soy beans. In the domestic sphere it is entrusted to Toshi Otoko (年 男, man of the year), that is the man of the family of the zodiacal sign of the lunar year entering or in his absence the oldest of the house. He has the task of driving out the harmful spirits and negativities from the house and the new year that is about to start by throwing around irimame (炒 り 豆, toasted soy beans) to the cry of "Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi! (鬼は外! 福は内, "Outside the demons! Inside fortune!"). In alternative, he can hurl the beans at another member of the family who plays the part of the demon wearing a mask of oni (Japanese folklore ogres). Subsequently, each member of the family must collect and eat a number of beans corresponding to their age plus one to ensure a year of success and good health (in the popular tradition, in fact, the demons are considered carriers of natural disasters and diseases).
When the oni is expelled, it is necessary to keep the evil spirits away from the house. For this reason it is possible to see in this period of the year some very special amulets, the Hiiragi Iwashi (柊 鰯), exposed at the entrance of the houses. These are holly branches that have the head of a dried sardine skewered on the end, sometimes complemented by pieces of garlic or onion, which have the purpose of keeping demons away, scared by the thorns and the pungent odor emanating from these talismans.

In both cases it is a tradition that has its roots in antiquity. Nowadays it is possible to buy "Setsubun sets" - made of oni masks and roasted beans - in any combini, but in reality the mamemaki custom would have originated in the Muromachi period (1392-1573) and seems to be inspired to an ancient legend, whose plot is still represented in the form of pantomime in the temple of Mibu-dera in Kyoto. Here the kyogen (ancient Japanese theatrical form) titled "Setsubun" is repeated several times during the day and it is said that it is sufficient to watch it to be purified by any negative or evil spirit. Its plot follows the folk tale that tells of an ogre who, in human form, goes one day to visit a widow. Thanks to its magic hammer, the ogre makes a beautiful kimono, which attracts the widow's attention. Eager to take possession not only of the kimono but also of the magic hammer, she decides to get him drunk to be able to steal them both. The ogre, however, aware of the theft, reveals his demonic nature and attacks the woman, who defends herself with the first thing that is within reach: a handful of soy beans. The oni, wounded but again in possession of his goods, flees leaving the widow safe and sound and perhaps a little wiser.


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Knowing how to look in the right direction

A tradition of more recent origins, born in Osaka but later spread to the rest of the country, is instead linked to the ehōmaki (恵 方 巻, scroll of lucky direction). In this case, to ensure that the good luck is on our side in the year that is about to begin, it is necessary to eat a special sushi roll in a single solution, without interruptions and in silence, facing the lucky direction of the year. The act is less simple than it may seem, considering that the ehōmaki is much more often than a common sushi roll (having to contain seven ingredients to propitiate the seven gods of luck) and is 20 centimeters long. It is not worth eating it cut into pieces, because doing so would also cut luck. To perform the ritual correctly, it is therefore necessary to arm yourself with concentration, determination and a precise compass. For those interested in experimenting with this custom, the most common ingredients to obtain for the filling are cucumber, surimi, salmon, tuna, anago (sea eel), tamagoyaki (Japanese omelette), dried kanpyo strips and seasoned (Japanese pumpkin) and shiitake mushrooms, as well as rice and nori seaweed, while the lucky direction for 2019 is East-North East.

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Festive temples

The Setsubun can be celebrated in a domestic environment or at least in a private dimension, with relatives and friends, but it is also and above all a recurrence to be lived in community. For example, schools often organize moments of recreation for children, who wear oni masks or have fun chasing adults dressed as demons while hurling beans against them. But it is especially in the temples that it is possible to experience the collective dimension of the party, participating in the events specially created for this day. First of all, of course, the mamemaki, carried out by the monks who throw soy beans from the top of the stages on the crowd gathered for the event. In some temples more shifts are organized for this ritual, reserving some special ones for children, who in addition to the beans receive sweets or small gifts. In addition to the monks, celebrities are often present, such as sports champions, personalities of the entertainment world, actors of the kabuki theater, geisha and maiko, television celebrities, who add a note of attractive glamor to traditional festivities. Among the latter we must remember the theatrical performances, the various purification ceremonies or even the striking archery performances, in which the archers throw their arrows at targets that have demon-like features.

In short, Setsubun is the ideal day for those who wish to live in company a start of the year that helps to renew their energies and for families who have the opportunity to spend a moment of joy together, something that always remains the best talisman against all evil at every latitude.


Japan Italy: Hiroshige Hokusai. Beyond the Wave

The fascinating world of Ukiyo-e on show in Bologna

photo credit: mondomostreskira.it

After the exhibitions in Rome and Milan, the initiatives launched in 2016 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Italy-Japan bilateral relations continue in Bologna with the wonderful exhibition of Hokusai and Hiroshige titled "HOKUSAI HIROSHIGE. Beyond the wave ". Until March 3, 2019, it is possible to explore at Museo Civico Archeologico the fascinating world of Ukiyo-e - the Japanese art press, the iconic representation of the floating world - through a selection of about 250 works from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, for the first time available in Italy.

The project, excellently curated by Rossella Menegazzo with Sarah E. Thompson and produced by MondoMostre Skira, develops in a very rich path through which the visitor can enjoy an aesthetically refined experience full of contents and insights related to the life and the artistic experience of the two masters.

The audio guides, provided free of charge with the admission ticket, allow the visitor to fully appreciate the artistic significance and historical value of the exhibited works, accompanying the visitor step by step through exhibition spaces that with their elegant and essential design provide an ideal setting for prints (the only flaw is the lighting, which forces to a very close and sometimes laborious vision due to the reflections created by the glass that covers the framed works).

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Masters comparison

The exhibition opens with a section dedicated to Hokusai and to his thirty-six views of Mount Fuji. The collection, published between 1831 and 1833 and rightly considered one of Master's masterpiece, is dedicated to the mountain, the symbol of identity of Japan, seen by different provinces and in different seasons, always the same and always new. It is an exercise of meditation, through which the author tries to capture the essence of time through the representation of the immobility of the mountain, as opposed to laborious human activities and the incessant renewal of nature.

Part of the collection is the famous woodcut The great wave of Kanagawa. The exhibition approach cleverly combines, in a sort of ideal passage, the great wave of Kanagawa with the Hiroshige’s The Sea in Satta in the province of Suruga, made 28 years after that of famous teacher. The vision of the two works side by side allows the visitor to fully grasp the artistic value of the two authors and at the same time their differences. Hokusai represents his wave horizontally, in a sort of circular vortex, with the Mount Fuji appear very small in the background, impassive witness of the dramatic event that instead takes place in the foreground, represented by the unequal struggle between the boat of the fishermen and the superhuman power of the waves.
Instead, Hiroshige chooses a vertical format, allowing his wave to rise upwards into the sky and dissolve into minute white foam, from which the birds in flight seem to almost originate. Here too there is a boat, seen in the distance while serenely sailing a peaceful sea, thus completing the picture of general harmony created by the natural elements in perfect balance.

The exhibition continues with an exciting journey into the world of Utagawa Hiroshige through various thematic sections titled Travel Images, Tokaido and Kisokaido; Fish, Molluscs, Crustaceans and Herbs, and also Flowers and Birds; Views of Distant Places; Parodies and Humor and finally the Hundred Views of the Famous Places of Edo.

The visitor can explore the entire creative universe rightly called "Master of rain and snow", because of the extraordinary skill and elegance representing the different atmospheric conditions. This ability is immediately evident in the illustrating i its historical as well as artistic significance.

The talent of Hiroshige, constantly guided by an almost religious sensitivity towards the different manifestations of the natural world, is not detected only by his prodigious ability to represent landscapes, flowers or animals. The Japanese master has been a great innovator able to regenerate the classic way of representing the landscape through visual elements anticipating characteristic of the future photographic vision. His illustrations are in fact characterized by the striking photographic cut of the composition, made up of overlapping layers where large elements placed in the foreground capture the viewer's attention, leaving everything else small in the background.


photo credit: artribune.com


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Hiroshige and the West

The photographic characteristics of Hiroshige’s works, the firm tract, the uniform color of backgrounds bordered by dark contours, absence of nuances and chiaroscuro effects, lack of symmetry, had great influence on the art of some impressionists and post-impressionists such as Manet, Monet, Degas and van Gogh. They showed their admiration by absorbing and reworking these graphic and elements or even explicitly citing them, as Vincent van Gogh did in the Portrait of père Tanguy using six ukiyo-e images as background for his character.

It is therefore particularly exciting to admire in the Bologna exhibition prints like "Shin-Ōhashi Bridge in the rain", "Susino in bloom" and "Inside the sanctuary Kameido Tenjin", appreciated by van Gogh and Monet to the point of inducing them to make copies, albeit reinterpreted according to their personal figure. Ukiyo-e prints were originally imported in Holland by the India Company and exploded as a socio-cultural phenomenon in the West and in particular in France after the Universal Exhibition of 1885. They became so influencial on the art and fashion of the era to determine the phenomenon that the engraver Philippe Burty in 1873 defined Japonisme.

Inside the exhibition, for the first time, the visitor can see very rare works, such as the Indian ink drawings, preparatory work for the production of wooden matrices. These drawings were in fact destroyed during the woodcutting process and it is therefore a rare and precious fact to be able to appreciate the master's original trait through them: fluid, safe, essential, surprisingly similar to that of the greatest mangakas (contemporary manga designers). The entire production process of the prints is also visible in an interesting video, projected in a special room, which completes the educational steps of the exhibition.


photo credit: timesnewromance.art

Ukiyo-e: the fleeting beauty of the floating world

Hiroshige was considered a modern artist by his contemporaries for his innovative compositions of the landscape. However, he also dedicated himself to the traditional Ukiyo-e more requested by the market of the time, as the scenes of daily life of the nascent town social class in the most beautiful and known places of the time, in particular Edo (the current Tokyo).

The last section of the exhibition, One hundred views of Edo's famous places is the most representative stream, the red thread linking the different creations of the masters of the Japanese art press. The Ukiyo-e ('images of the floating world') is a genre that flourishes in the Edo era in the pacified and prosperous Japan of the Tokugawa shogunate It responds to the taste of the rising city bourgeoisie, representing the new chonin lifestyle ( people of the city), the lifestyle of those artisans and traders who, thanks to their activities, now hold economic power, while the austere samuraic caste, more and more bureaucratized and less warlike, deals with managing political power.

The Ukiyo-e is therefore an optimistic representation of that "floating world", of that palpitating life of the city, ephemeral and of short duration, which must be enjoyed in a sort of oriental carpe diem, plunging fully into its incessant current, in contrast ironic to the Buddhist ukiyo, indicating instead the 'world of suffering', the constant cycle of death and earthly rebirth from which the Buddhist monk tries to free himself.
Also in this representation of the life of the city and its protagonists, Hiroshige excels, giving to his compositions the same sense of balance and harmony that pervades his depictions of the natural world.

The Bolognese exhibition is therefore an unmissable opportunity to approach an artistic genre that has been fascinating the West for centuries and will not fail to conquer the neophytes, as well as to deepen the knowledge of a world maybe already known. In addition to the extensive information in the exhibit, it is in fact possible to take advantage of thematic guided tours, structured both for schools of different orders and degrees and for the adult public.

The initiative is completed by a series of special events and conferences focused on different aspects of the world of Ukiyo-e and of the Japanese culture. The complete calendar of events can be consulted at the official website of the exhibition: www.oltrelonda.it