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.
I didn’t like just what amounted to a fish head on a stick. This custom isn’t practiced much in Kyoto, and I can see why. A leftover grilled fish head on a stick isn’t very elegant.
It was no matter for me because my sardine head disappeared within a few days. I assumed that the always troublesome ‘karasu’ ravens, that often rip bags of garbage open on garbage day and are responsible for a street strewn with garbage – usually to be discovered after the garbage truck has passed, was the culprit in the case of the missing fish head.
The sardine head on a holly stick is called ‘hiiragi iwashi’ in Japanese. The characters are 柊 holly (hiiragi) and 鰯 sardine (iwashi). It literally means ‘sardine holly’. It is an ancient custom in Japan and one I have been fascinated with since I first saw it in Nara many years ago.
Well, I am a designer, and an architect. I believe that designers identify and solve problems, not just pretty things-up. Since last year, usually when I was riding my bicycle, I had been designing a new kind of Hiiragi Iwashi, in my mind. It had to be attractive, more sophisticated than just a fish head on a stick, it would have to pass muster for Kyoto. And, very importantly, it had to be raven-proof.
This was a real Japanese-style D.I.Y project. My materials and tools came from the home center, the fish monger and the riverside. I tried to keep my design as Japanese as possible; it should be simple and naturally attractive. I decided to use a whole sardine, uncooked. The sardine is fastened to a piece of slender bamboo for rigidity and a generous amount of holly branches and thorny leaves cover up the sardine from being easily spotted by the omnipresent and brutish ravens.
However, this design isn’t weasel or mink proof and you would be surprised at the number of weasel and mink you see scurrying around the quiet streets of Kyoto at night. They can just dash up a tsuchi-kabe (mud-plastered) wall and I guess this year I am just hoping that none will discover it.
The History and Meaning of Hiiragi Iwashi
Apparently this custom is so old in Japan that no scholars have been able to pinpoint its origins. It is first mentioned in a diary called Tosa Nikki written by Kino Tsurayuki in 935. At this time mullet was used rather than sardine and it was a part of New Year’s shimenawa decoration. (At that time, Japan celebrated the Chinese lunar new year, the exact date changes every year falling between late January to mid February. Now Japanese celebrate the new year according to the Western calendar, on January 1st.)
Setsubun is the day before spring begins in Japan. Simply speaking, it is a kind of new year’s celebration and the ‘Oni’ demon is a troublemaker, so at the beginning of the new year, you want to drive him away. There are several Setsubun customs that all involve food and driving out illness and misfortune and inviting in happiness.
Oni are said to dislike the strong, penetrating and lingering smell of sardines. So, you want to cook and eat sardines on Setsubun. Then, to keep the Oni from entering your home, put the leftover grilled sardine head on or around your front door. Next, Oni are afraid of getting their eyes poked so the thorns on the holly leaf are very frightening to them. Put these two together, you have a double whammy, an oni-ni-kanabo.
I like the idea of the sardine being front and center to the design, it is quite primitive, which I find charming. But, Oni dislikes the smell, not the sight of sardines. So, the sardine doesn’t really have to be readily visible. The most important thing is the odor. So, the sardine can be largely covered by the holly leaves and the hiiragi iwashi out to still be fully effective against the trouble making Oni.
The traditional hiiragi iwashi usually only has a few leaves on it, my design has a lot – 5 branches! Using a whole, large sardine allows for a lot more holly. If Oni are afraid of getting their eyes poked by the holly thorns, then the holly leaves should definitely be at the forefront. I am assuming that Oni sees the thorns and backs off rather than bumping into them first. Either way, I’ve got him with this design. The thorns are many, and out front.
Next come the form follows function aspects of the design. A big, stinky raw sardine on the front of a house is the equivalent of an ‘Eat Me’ sign to those pushy and unmannered ravens. So, this decorative talisman needs to have some self-defense. The sardine is nearly hidden from view head on. From below and up close, the head and eyes of the sardine can be seen, but I think you have to know what to look for. From a few meters away about the only thing seen is those holly leaves full of thorns.
The sardine is trussed and well-tied to a slender but sturdy piece of bamboo.
I thought about covering it up and wrapping it in plastic, that would make the contents visible but nearly in-penetrable to vermin but I really hate that. A lot of shrines now use plastic, transparent tape and other unnatural materials for the charms and talismans. It is a pity and very un-Japanese. My designs doesn’t cut any corners, it is 100% natural – and maybe a bit vulnerable. If it does get eaten, I will employ another Japanese tactic – kaizen; the philosophy of continual improvement and make a better design next year.
I will be working on my new and improved design for next year. We have had a number of people say that they want to do Japanese New Year’s Osechi Cuisine in their country. That is a major project. While I don’t know how many Oni are living overseas now, Hiiragi Iwashi would be easy to make and certainly get you talked about in your foodie community. Give it a try!
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