Let the ogres in: Kijin Jinja's reverse Setsubun

Let the ogres in: Kijin Jinja's reverse Setsubun

February 3 is the traditional day for throwing beans to drive away 'oni,' but at one temple in Saitama, they invite those very monsters in with the good luck
Setsubun
A pair of rather cute looking oni devils pose beneath Kijin Jinja's rooftop.

The famous cry of the Setsubun tradition is "Fuku wa uchi! Oni wa soto!" ("In with good fortune, out with the oni!")

Casting out oni ogres might sound like something from the climax of a "J-Horror" film, but come February 3 every year, you'll hear the phrase said by nearly every homeowner in Japan. It's all part of the Setsubun ritual -- the annual tradition of purifying one's house and family in anticipation of the New Year.

If you're a father, chances are you'll be pulling on a monstrous oni mask and getting pelted with soybeans from your kids. Then afterwards, the tradition holds that you should eat the number of dried soybeans equal to your age in order to protect yourself from illness throughout the year.

Kijin Jinja: A different approach to Setsubun

Setsubun is celebrated in nearly identical ways across Japan, but there are a handful of shrines that venerate the oni devils themselves, such as the famous Kijin Jinja shrine in Saitama. Here the oni are welcomed inside along with the good fortune.

SetsubunMetal clubs, the oni's weapon of choice, are on display near the altar.We can see what you're thinking: These shrines worship oni? Isn't that basically devil worship? Not exactly.

The concept might sound off the wall in the context of a monotheistic, good-versus-evil sort of belief system. But Japan is a land of innumerable deities, and the oni, while often misrepresented as 'demons' in translation, are actually far more complex than their frightening countenances might suggest.

The Kijin Jinja shrine has stood in Saitama prefecture for more than 800 years. The priests treat the oni as a god of triumph and victory. Samurai warriors prayed here before their battles. Now, in more peaceful times, students visit to pray for triumph over a different sort of adversary: their school entrance exams.

Those with serious prayers in need of fulfillment leave big iron clubs as offerings. This stems from the phrase "Oni ni kanabo" -- literally "an oni with an iron club," which is an idiom for "unbeatability" in Japanese.

So if you're interested in seeing a whole different twist on the usual tradition, drop by Kijin Jinja on Feburary 3. This is one of the few places in Japan where the oni (or rather, shrine members dressed like them) get a chance to hurl soybeans at the humans for a change -- crying "Fuku wa uchi! Oni wa uchi! Akuma soto!" ("In with good fortune! In with oni! And out with the devils!")

getting there

The shrine is located in Saitama, a 15 minute walk from Musashi-Ranzan station (Tobu Line). The trip takes roughly an hour by train from Ikebukuro station.   Google map.

For more on the festival, see Enjoy Tokyo. [Japanese]