Japan from the inside out

Matsuri da! (63): Sembei roasting o’er an open fire…

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, December 12, 2007

EVERY ASPECT OF LIFE can be used as the basis for a Shinto festival in Japan, so it should be no surprise that one shrine holds an annual ceremony for baking snack food.

Sembei, or rice crackers, are a traditional Japanese snack still eaten and sold commercially. If you like such crunchy snacks as crackers, pretzels, or potato chips, you’ll like sembei, and they’re probably more healthful to boot. (The larger crackers are called sembei; a smaller variety is called arare, and they’re just as good.)

The Ebisu Shinto shrine of Sakaeshin-machi in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, held its annual Sembei Festival on the 20th last month as parishioners circled a fire on the shrine grounds to toast the rice crackers. The ceremony is conducted in supplication to the divinities for protection from illness and disaster. In other words, it’s like a marshmallow roast with a religious dimension.

The premise is simple. The sembei are attached to the end of a bamboo stick about 3.5 meters long and held over the fire. While anyone can toast a marshmallow, there seems to be a knack to cooking up rice crackers. Reportedly, some people have to take their semi-cooked sembei home to finish the job there.

As with many Shinto festivals, stalls were set up on the shrine grounds to sell merchandise and other snacks, and there was also a taiko drum performance.

Oddly, there was no mention in the reports of when or why the festival started. But I suspect people don’t need much of an excuse to get together and munch on snacks!

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