Many people from surrounding neighborhoods gather at the riverside Sumiyoshi Shrine on the afternoon of February 3 to commemorate Setsubun. While Gokoku Shrine has ritual archery and Daishoin Temple on Miyajima has huge crowds, Sumiyoshi Shrine sets itself apart with dead fish and amusing role plays.
The main attraction at Sumiyoshi Shrine is the grilling and distribution of hundreds of sardine heads. The smell of the grilling fish which wafts over the shrine grounds is, understandably, thought to drive away evil spirits and misfortune.
After the Shinto ceremony the crowd gathered in front of the shrine splits into two, making way for oni demons to approach the shrine. On reaching the sardine grilling platform they go into convulsions and beat a hasty retreat. The oni, however, are just the start. Over the next 30 minutes or so, various people representing the big news stories of the past year run the sardine smoke gauntlet. In 2015, these included a priest with dengue fever and guys dressed as the crying politician Ryutaro Nomura who broke the Japanese internet, Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly member Akihiro Suzuki who made the news for his sexist taunting of a female colleague and dappo quasi-legal drug dealers. In all cases the noxious sardines made them see the error of their ways.
Once the role playing is done, people crowd two stages for the “mame-maki” casting out of snacks by the priests and guests from two platforms. In the confined space it can get pretty crazy and I saw a few baby strollers take a tumble as mothers battled for the lucky gifts.
Those who want something just as effective, but less smelly, can buy a Setsubun fish head amulet.
Sumiyoshi-jinja Shrine’s Setsubun-sai starts at 2pm on February 3. Click here for more details.