Setsubun Customs: Hiiragi Iwashi (Holly and Sardine Head)

Setsubun Customs: Hiiragi Iwashi (Holly and Sardine Head) 柊鰯

Setsubun Customs: Hiiragi Iwashi (Holly and Sardine Head) 柊鰯
On February 3, Setsubun, the eve of the beginning of spring, it is essential eat maki-zushi, throw beans out your front door, eat sardines, impale a sardine head on holly and place it near your front door to ensure a healthy and prosperous new year. Notice, everything involves food!

Hiiragi Iwashi, literally ‘holly sardine’ is a cooked sardine head impaled on a holly branch. The hiiragi iwashi is attached to the exterior of the house, usually next to the front door.

Demons, which bring illness and poverty are said to dislike the strong smell of sardines and they fear getting their eyes poked by the sharp points on holly leaves. So, if you combine the two, you have a powerful weapon, a double wammy that demons are just no march for. If this talisman is on your house at the coming of spring, demons won’t come in your house and get your year off to a bad start.

Hiiragi Iwashi On Guard at the Front Doorsetsubun-hiiragi-iwashi-1

The hiiragi iwashi is not a very common sight in Kyoto, I am not sure if I have even seen one in Kyoto. In near-by Nara, it is very common. I remember when I first came to Japan, long before I knew much about Setsubun and before I had ever heard of hiiragi iwashi, I was sightseeing in Nara and it happened to be Setsubun. I remember walking around the old town (Nara-machi) and seeing fish heads on twigs nailed to nearly every house. I kept asking my friend what was with it but she didn’t know exactly.

Well, this year Miwa and I decided to do hiiragi iwashi in Kyoto! It was pretty fun. We bought some big, fat sardines at Fuji Daimaru Department Store and asked the dude at the fish stall for some holly, being used for decoration which he kindly gave us.

Back home, we grilled the sardines and ate them, knowing that those naughty demons would not be able to deal with the smell of our tasty meal. We used one of the heads to make the talisman, and put it up well before midnight.

We are expecting an extra happy, healthy and prosperous year now!

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

We think that last year’s KyotoFoodie Setsubun: The Day Before Spring, Demons, How to Eat Eho-Maki and Throw Your Beans article is great too!

KyotoFoodie Setsubun Articles
Setsubun Ehomaki, Mame-maki and Grilled Sardine
Setsubun Customs: Hiiragi Iwashi (Holly and Sardine Head) (this one)
(2008) Setsubun: The Day Before Spring, Demons, How to Eat Eho-Maki and Throw Your Beans

9 Responses to “Setsubun Customs: Hiiragi Iwashi (Holly and Sardine Head)”

  1. seamaiden says:

    Really interesting and enjoyable article! Thanks! I lived in Chiba-shi for two years and never saw them- must be a Kansai/Kanto thing. 🙂 Very interesting custom. I asked my friend who lived in Nara and he said he saw them once or twice and couldn’t figure out what they were. i think I would be afraid to come to a door festooned with Hiiragi-iwashi too… maybe I’m a demon? 😉


  2. FFichiban says:

    OOhh woow that is interesting! It must have been funny but weird seeing sardine heads with holly branch bodies on nearly every door and not knowing what it meant hee hee.
    Hope you guys do have a happy, healthy and prosperous year ^^!

  3. kat says:

    I was wondering why they had the holly in the fish department, thanks for sharing!!

  4. I learn something new every time I visit your blog:-)

  5. Peko-P says:

    Hello Everybody, ‘Sorry for late’ as they say in Japan!

    Hello seamaiden, Yes, this is a Kansai thing, we learned. We also learned that you have to leave it up all year, so I am making a prettier one now. We are going to try to launch the tradition here in Kyoto.

    Hello FFichiban, Thank you very much! And we hope that you have a happy, healthy and prosperous year too! Yes, the hiiragi iwashi is pretty weird. I just love how so much superstition, oh, excuse me, culture, in Japan has to do with food. I imagine that this is a really old tradition. I mean, who in their right mind would stick a fish head on their front door these days? Well, I am enjoying it!

    hi kat, They were just decorating the sardine section for setsubun with the holly. They usually have some cedar boughs, ferns, etc.

    Hello Marc, Well, coming from a foodie of your stature, I will take that as QUITE a compliment. Thank you! (Gotta print that one out and nail it to the post here in the machiya.)

  6. […] Aren’t Japanese demons easy to deal with? No magically passing through walls and so on! (see this KyotoFoodie Hiiragi Iwashi article for more) Origin of Ehomaki There are two competing theories regarding the origin of ehomaki. One […]

  7. […] Last year on February 3rd, the day before spring, I put a grilled sardine head on a holly stick and put it next to my front door. That was to prevent the ‘Oni’ demon from entering my house and getting my new year off to a bad start. […]

  8. Robert Thivierge says:

    I was in Nara with my dauther on March 14 and 15 and we were intrigued by the holly and fish head we could see at nearly every house near the ryokan where we were staying. Thanks to your article, I now know about “hiiragi iwashi” and the stench of sardines scaring the Oni’s away. We also met a woman with her daughter who told us about how excited she became when time was up to throw soybeans at the damn Oni’s….

  9. Josh says:

    Japanese people are weird, but I like their food and anime

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