One of the most fun things that I did while living in Yokosuka ( 横須賀 ) was participate in the Setsubun ( 節分 ) festival at the local Shinto shrine. Shie-chan (see side bar) invited me to participate during one of my many sessions at her business. She was running the sake booth at the festival. While this is an observance of the change in season, it is not a national holiday. It is simply a festival that the Japanese hold on the day before spring.
Setsubun ( 節分 ) is the day before the first day of a new season. It is usually observed only for the transition to Spring. During the change in season, red and blue monsters become apparent and have to be chased away. This is done by throwing roasted soy beans at them. People will, in their homes, throw beans and shout "Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi" ( おにはそと! ふくはうち! ), "Monsters out! Luck in!"
Local Shinto shrines will also have public bean throwing where members who have donated to the local shrine will stand in front of a crowd on a stage or platform and throw beans at them. People who catch the beans will have good luck. At the shrine that I attended this happened at several scheduled times during the day. There are (at least at the shrine I went to) booths where you can buy snacks, coffee, or sake as well as gifts or souvenirs (omiyage - お土産 ). In between the scheduled times for throwing beans there was apparently performance of taiko music on the stage. I arrived too late to hear that.
Japanesepod101.com has a culture lesson from 2006 about 節分 that you may find informative (the audio is free). This year (2010) the festival was on February 3rd.
The people at the shrine were very welcoming and made me feel at home. My wife escorted me both to help me with the language and for her own amusement.
After removing our shoes and donning slippers we entered a dining/meeting room to await our turn in the shrine where the requisite prayers and etc are performed. Being in the waiting run in a Shinto shrine was very like it would be in any Christian church. Anyone active in a Christian church would have recognized the atmosphere immediately.
We were offered tea or sake while we waited and donned the ceremonial garb. Then off to the shrine for prayers. I observed the prayers, but did not pray for a couple of reasons, but found it very interesting. Following the prayers we were each given a wooden box with envelopes of dried beans and went off to a stage to throw them.
I tried to step to the back, but the shrine members all stepped aside and insisted that I take a position in front.
This was fun. Immediately in front of the stage were a number of kids who were trying desperately to catch some beans, but we were throwing them over their heads to people farther away, so I started throwing beans close in for them.
This was an extraordinary amount of fun and good for the community. After I returned to the meeting/waiting room a member of the Yokosuka City Council came up to me and shook my hand, thanking me profusely for participating in their festival. We (my wife and I) were enthusiastically welcomed into their community.
Setsubun will be a regular event for me from now on.