February, being in the midst of winter, is typically a cold month when people are decked out in thick coats wherever they venture outdoors. Kisaragi (如月), the name for this month in the kyuureki, reflects this fact as it is a homonym of the term 衣更着 which means to put on additional clothes in this month. Gradually, the name used to refer to the month became kisaragi which has the same pronunciation but expressed in different Kanji characters. Besides this, February is also known by other names such as kusakiharizuki (草木張月) which means the month when buds start to appear on trees and plants, kisaragi (気更来) which means the month where more sunshine will come with each day and kisaragi (来更来) which refers to the swallows coming after the wild geese that arrived in August the previous year.
In this month, the biggest event is Setsubun (節分) which is the day just before Risshun (立春) i.e. the first day of spring. To pray for a peaceful year ahead, the tradition is to throw fukumame (福豆) at demons in order to chase them away. In the old days in Kyoto, the tradition to use beans for this ritual arose from the fact that the Japanese term for beans (mame) sounds like the term “exorcising the demons” (魔滅). Generally, soybeans which have been roasted are used for this purpose.
It is considered bad luck if sprouts appear from the leftover beans that are not picked up after the ceremony while eating the beans used is said to bring fortune after chasing away the demons. There is a belief that there are gods residing in the 5 staple grains namely rice, wheat, soybeans, Japanese millet and foxtail millet. While rice is considered the best in its power to exorcise demons and is often used for religious ceremonies, the soybeans are chosen for their larger size compared to rice and their exorcising power is said to be the second most effective.
In Japan, the custom of yakudoshi (厄年) which has been in place since the Heian era, has an uncanny link to the signature wagashi of February, the Yakuyoke Manju (厄除け饅頭). The roots and concept behind yakudoshi are not known but it was first mentioned in the Iroha Jiruisho (色葉字類抄) where people at the ages of 13, 25, 37, 49, 61, 73, 85 and 97 were said to be at risk of having a yakudoshi or, a bad year where they will be especially prone to misfortune due to accidents and disasters.
Over time, the concept of yakudoshi has evolved and there are different yakudoshi ages for men and women now. In the case of men, people at the ages of 25, 42 and 61 are considered to be having a yakudoshi while for women, that will be the ages of 19, 33 and 37. In the years before and after the yakudoshi, the person would also have to be cautious as well because that’s when the bad luck starts and ends.
Usually, when people are having a yakudoshi, they will head to a shrine or temple to undergo a ceremony called yakubarai (厄払い) so as to ward off the bad luck. During Setsubun, they can also take part in the mamemaki (豆まき) ceremony. Alternatively, people can eat the yakuyoke manju which supposedly can be eaten by everyone for the same purpose whether they are having a yakudoshi or not.
The yakuyoke manju’s skin is usually made of soft wheat flour while the filling is made from red bean paste. Once the manjuu has been shaped and the words yakuyoke stamped on the top, it will be placed in a steamer for about 10 minutes. The manju can come in colours such as white, brown or pink depending on the ingredients added to the skin’s dough.
How about having some yakuyoke manju during the next Setsubun to bring in good luck for yourself?