In early February Japan will be celebrating Setsubun, one of my favourite festivals on the calendar. Setsubun recognises the dividing of the seasons, and involves rituals where people dress up as demons, and are then pelted with lucky soy beans. So long as you have a cheap demon mask and someone willing to be hit by soy beans you can get involved with banishing bad luck. Shout “fuku wa uchi, oni wa soto” and nobody will be annoyed at being pelted.
The focus for this article zooms in on a much newer aspect of Setsubun however. The actual event started way back in the Muromachi period, but much more recently stores have set up their own tradition alongside Setsubun. Like many of the best traditions it’s to do with food, specifically long, uncut sushi rolls known as ehō-maki.
Ehō-maki have spread through a mixture of popularity and marketing by any store interested in benefiting from increased sushi sales. Originally it was an Osaka based activity, but it’s now ehō-maki has been picked up by people outside the Kanto region as well, reaching across the country.
As you might expect, there’s ehō-maki out there which really take ideas in an odd direction, but some of the most attention grabbing rolls have claimed their space simply by the jaw dropping price tag attached to them. Things might not be as lavish this year, but standards have been set amazingly high in the past.
A couple of years back Matsuzakaya department store in Nagoya was selling ehō-maki at the wallet draining price of 7,580 JPY (that’s about £53 per roll!). The high price is due to the admittedly beautiful design, which depicts a gargoyle from Nagoya Castle in shining gold leaf. It’s not the most expensive ehō-maki either, with plenty of other contenders for the title, including the 15,800 JPY (£110) offering from Nakajima Seafood which was filled with 19 super high quality ingredients such as pufferfish and bluefin tuna.
Appropriately for this year we’ve seen some ehō-maki themed around the disease curing yokai Amabie, who become a common sight. A fishery in Hyogo prefecture has released ‘Amaebi ehō-maki’, a play on words on the yokai’s name. ‘Amaebi’ is a type of a northern shrimp, which makes up most of this ehō-maki’s filling; delicious and maybe even pandemic dispersing.
There’s another Amabie style sushi roll on sale from Matsuzakaya Ueno Store but it takes a different approach and tries to recreate the spirit’s odd bird-like face; probably as tasty as it is spooky.
Using eel as an ingredient in ehō-maki is nothing new, but this year Sendai Umino-Mori Aquarium in north-eastern Japan has managed to do this in a much more innovative (and eel friendly) way. By decorating pipes in the eel’s tank the aquarium has helped visitors get some great photos of eels poking their heads out of huge ehō-maki. It’s been so popular that the gift shop has been selling specially made soft toys based on the eel ehō-maki designs. Who knew a sushi roll could be so adorable?