Japan from the inside out

Matsuri da! (71): Demons detest smelly sardines!

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, February 13, 2008

AT TIMES LIKE THESE, it would helpful if computer technology had reached a point of development at which odors could be conveyed over the Internet in addition to audio, text, and video images.

That’s because some folks in Hiroshima City had a bright idea for driving out pesky demons way back in the Heian Period (8th to 12th centuries)—roasting sardine heads. It worked so well they’ve been doing it ever since.

The news department of RCC television filed a story about this year’s event earlier this month that you can see and hear with RealPlayer, if not smell it. The story lasts 58 seconds, the link is here, and it won’t last forever, so click quick!

Here’s a translation of the news reader’s summary:

Today is Setsubun (the 3rd). A Shinto shrine in Hiroshima City conducted an ancient Shinto rite for vanquishing demons by roasting sardine heads.

The Sumiyoshi shrine in Hiroshima City’s Naka Ward has been holding this event, known as the Yaikagashi, as a Setsubun festival since the Heian period. The shrine maidens roast the sardine heads, and legend has it that the odor will exorcise the demons.
(Shrine maiden at the start of the ceremony) “Everybody, let’s quickly roast 1,000 sardine heads to drive (the demons) away.”

Fanning the flames with a large fan will create such an unpleasant odor that it will disperse the red devil and the god of poverty.

(Woman) “I want to go golfing. I want a special invitation to go golfing.”

This drives away the evil spirit connected with last year’s incidents that involved golfing invitations and other deceptions. (This is a reference to former Vice Defense Minister Moriya Takemasa and his golf games with a former executive of Yamada Corp., who was involved in a financial scandal.)

After the rite, everyone was given a sardine head impaled on a holly olive branch to take home.

Now if that won’t drive away the demons, nothing will!

11 Responses to “Matsuri da! (71): Demons detest smelly sardines!”

  1. Overthinker said

    I wonder if this is connected with the saying “even a sardine’s head may become holy”? (鰯の頭も信心から: Iwashi no atama mo shinshin kara)

    Actually, looking up the Gogen Yurai Jiten at
    it appears to be definitely connected. Also explains the last part of Ampontan’s post:
    Trans: Since the Edo period, it has been the custom to stick a sardine’s head on a twig of Hiiragi (Holly olive, whatever that is*) wood, and post it by the door. The combination of the hiiragi wood smell, which demons do not like, and the stench of the sardines, drove the demons away. From this, sardines were used as representative of worthless worship, with the even more useless head reinforcing the worthlessness of it. Note that the custom of sticking sardines and hiiragi outside the door originates from the Heian-period custom of sticking a Nayoshi (whatever sort of fish that is) head on a shimenawa rope and hanging hiiragi.

    *I looked it up on wiki-japan to find out Ampontan had already translated the word for me….

  2. ampontan said

    It’s often of little use to translate fish/bird/butterfly/flower/tree names into English, because they just don’t exist, or are not well known, on other continents. I don’t know what a holly olive is either.

    As for that fish, Japanese wikipedia calls that character a bora in Japanese, or a flathead mullet in English.

    Whatever that is!

  3. Aki said

    I do believe that the saying “even a sardine’s head may become holy” is from the habit to use sardine (鰯) for driving demons away in the Setsubun day. I eat sardines in the Setsubun day every year.

    You can see photographs of actual hiiragi-iwashi in this page.

  4. bender said

    Bora=mullet. Mullet roe (karasumi) is a delicacy in Japan and also in the Mediterranean as botarga. Definitely not sardine. Sardine is iwashi in Japanese. Bora inhabits brackish waters near estuaries while sardines are more seaborne.

    So if it’s bora you’re talking about, I’d change to “mullet” ( I wouldn’t say “flat head mullet” since that’s only one kind of mullet. Plain “mullet” is fine. ). Some words do have exact translations, and sardine and mullet just happen to be two such examples, because they’re common in Japan and also in English-speaking areas. By the way, bora is not the kind of fish that everyone likes to eat, even in Japan. The roes are a delicacy throughout Japan, though.

  5. ampontan said

    Bender: Overthinker wondered what kind of a fish a nayoshi was, so I popped that kanji on the net and came up with that page about a bora/flathead mullet. Since it’s wiki, of course, one has to be careful…

  6. Overthinker said

    I agree about translating names – what the smeg is a sea bream or burdock root anyway? I only know these names as tai and gobo are so popular here….

  7. camphortree said

    One of charms visiting this blog is that I learn how to translate Japanese proverbs into proper English. Oh I see, “Even a sardine’s head may become holy” is for 鰯の頭も信心かな。I finally got it. Thank you everyone.
    Over the years at around Groundhog Day I have been wrongly telling my family, “You may worship a sardine’s head.” My husband apparently memorized that phrase, and he would say, “I may worship a sardine’s head” whenever he sees off visitors from Witnesses of Jehovah.

  8. bender said

    Oh, so “nayoshi” is from OT’s post…sorry about that. Never heard of that fish. Must be some antiquated word…like kugui for swan.

  9. ponta said
    Have you picked up this one?

  10. ampontan said

    Ponta: Thanks! Looks like a good one. Now let me see if I can fit it in…I’ve got a list of about 20 that I haven’t gotten around to yet!

  11. […] Additional Setsubun Info On ampontan’s blog there is a nice article with additional information about sardines and Setsubun. Matsuri da! (71): Demons detest smelly sardines […]

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