Ehomaki (maki-zushi, eating on the day of Setsubun) (恵方巻)
Ehomaki (written as 恵方巻 or 恵方巻き) refers to the maki-zushi (sushi roll) eating which on the day of Setsubun (the traditional end of winter) is considered to bring good luck, or the custom centered around the Kinki region of eating the ehomaki.
It is also called 'ehozushi.'
According to the custom, one looks in the lucky direction of the year (according to the Chinese zodiac) with closed eyes, and silently bites into a thick sushi roll while thinking of his or her wish.
The custom reflects people's wish for prosperous trade and state of perfect health; ehomaki contains seven kinds of ingredients, such as gourd strip, cucumber, shiitake mushroom, rolled omelet made with soup stock, eel, and denbu (mashed and seasoned fish, flesh of whitefish and shrimp that has been boiled, shredded, parched, seasoned, and colored red) inside, to be associated with the Seven Deities of Good Luck.
There are many theories concerning the origin of ehomaki, and none is definite. One of such theories is the following.
Since the day of Setsubun falls under the day before risshun (the first day of spring) of entering spring according to the calendar, the custom was done as an annual event of yakuotoshi (ceremony to drive away evil spirits) for driving away bad luck for the year. Another theory is based on a historical event in which, on the day before the day of Setsubun, a vassal of Hideyoshi TOYOTOMI named Yoshiharu HORIO happened to eat what looked like maki-zushi and departed for the front, and came off of a great victory in the battle.
Other places named as the birthplace of ehomaki include Wakayama Prefecture (Kii Province) and Shiga Prefecture (Omi Province), but neither is definite. It seems that later, the custom of ehomaki was conducted among merchants in Senba, Osaka in the early part of Showa period; the publicity leaflet of 'marukaburi zushi' ("marukaburi" means 'biting into the whole piece' without cutting it) for Setsubun was created. However, it is also said that the tradition that ehomaki 'must be eaten with one bite' was a story made up by Masahiko YAMAJI, the president of 'Takomasa,' who began selling ehomaki to promote the sale of nori (dried sheets of a type of red algae).
Revival in Osaka
Although the custom died out temporarily after the war, since 1973, posters created by Osaka Nori Wholesale Cooperative Association were jointly put up by sushi restaurants at their shops, spreading the campaign for sales promotion of maki-zushi which used nori. In 1974 the following year, owners of nori stores, etc. in Osaka City, aiming to expand the demand for nori after the oil crisis of 1973, held a speed-eating contest of norimaki (vinegared rice rolled in dried nori [laver]) at a Setsubun event. In 1977, Osaka Nori Wholesale Cooperative Association organized a sales promotion event for nori in Dotonbori (a geographical name). Circumstances such as those described above led to the revival of ehomaki.
Sales promotion in various places
Since the sales promotion event held in Dotonbori was picked up by the media, it spread to the Kansai region, and later ehomaki came to be sold at convenient stores; as such, the sales promotion campaign for ehomaki came to be held across the country.
As a sales event from late January until early February, which is commercially a period of depressed sales, sale of ehomaki expanded with a central focus on mostly convenience stores. As a pioneer, Family Mart started selling ehomaki in Osaka prefecture and Hyogo Prefecture in 1983. In 1989, 7-Eleven, Inc. in Hiroshima Prefecture started selling ehomaki, and later expanded its sales area; as the result of sales expansion to throughout Japan, ehomaki rapidly became popular.
From around 2007, there was even the case of selling a Swiss roll as 'ehomaki [eho roll],' by taking advantage of real ehomaki. Furthermore, in January of 2007, 7-Eleven, Inc. sold a Swiss roll called "marukaburi Swiss roll."
Since the 1990's, from the beginning of January until the period of Setsubun every year, PR events, such as broadcast of TV commercial nationwide and sales promotion activities by supermarkets, are implemented.
According to the survey conducted by Mizkan Group Corporation which has its head office in Aichi Prefecture, the national average of awareness of ehomaki was 53% in 2002, whereas it increased to 92.5% in 2006, and the national average of respondents who 'actually ate' ehomaki reached 54.9% in 2006. At the same time, regional difference can also be observed regarding whether or not to actually eat ehomaki.
The spread of this event nationwide in recent years has the tendency of aiming at sales promotion under the leadership of relevant industries such as nori industry and convenience store industry, as in the case of giving sweets on Valentine's Day, White Day, and Orange Day; as such, 'seafood sushi roll version' and 'Swiss roll version,' which are not the traditional thick sushi roll, are also being sold.