Feeling like a Phoenix: Walking On Fire at Takidanji

I was quite happy living my life, content with the knowledge that I will never be anything other than a mere mortal, until a visit to Takidanji Temple turned my world upside down.  It was there that I had a small, first taste of what it must feel like to be a god, and I must confess I have an insatiable craving to feel that way again….and again. I felt a little like Daenerys Targaryen, now…if only I could find myself a dragon to accompany my newfound ability to walk on fire…

When my friend invited me to this festival I was worried, what she promised sounded too good to be true. I was scared of getting my hopes up only to be disappointed by reality.  It’s not every day, after all, that you’re invited to take place in a fire walking ritual! Despite this, I quite happily agreed to attend and mentally steeled myself to walk across the fire too, should the opportunity just so happen to present itself.

Hiwatari in Japan is the act of walking barefoot over a bed of hot embers or stones.  It’s done as as a test of an individual’s strength and courage, both mentally and physically. At Takidanji Temple the Yamabushi (mountain monks) perform this ritual every year, mid June, to test their religious faith and strengthen their minds.

On the day of the festival we breathed a sigh of relief because the forecast called for sunshine all day ! (In the event of rain, the firewalking ritual is cancelled.)IMG_0003 IMG_0005We were very fortunate, a group of lovely volunteers from the International Plaza of Fukui coordinated a mini-tour for 16 foreigners on the day. They drove us to the festival, led us on a charming tour of the temple grounds and explained to us in English the details of this hiwatari ritual. I personally was very grateful for their kindness in organizing this outing, I could learn more deeply about the festival thanks to their efforts.

This festival is very popular with the locals of Fukui, and many people came out to participate. While we were expecting to see lots of locals, the locals definitely were not expecting to see a large group of foreigners attending. They were shocked and positively delighted to see a large “gaggle of gaikokujin” at the temple (Gaikokujin is the polite word for “foreigner” in Japanese). I love this figure of speech because we really do act a little bit like geese, all clustered closely together and, to the locals ears, “squawking” away in English.

Since coming to Japan I’ve become quite shy about being photographed by strangers, it happens far to often for my comfort. So, naturally or course, hilarity ensued because everywhere I turned people were both openly and surreptitiously taking photos of me. Just my luck. My brain started to short-circuit from my futile attempts to avoid photos. Eventually, I sighed a big sigh, and gave in the the inevitable and posed for the paparazzi.   I couldn’t step away from my cluster of friends without being asked, very politely, if it would be okay to pose for a picture.  It’s one of the downfalls of having very noticeably blue eyes and being 5 feet 9 inches tall.  The upside is that everyone calls me “bijin” which means “beautiful woman” so my insecurity is typically (somewhat) appeased.

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Monks on procession

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It was a special day at Takidanji because it was the Hiwatari Ritual and also the first day of the new head monk. The new head monk is the man in green attire.

IMG_0042 IMG_0045 IMG_0049The traditional attire of the mountain monks was beautiful. I loved their ceremonial shell trumpets, these would later be used to herald in the fire. I was enamoured with their outfits and couldn’t resist being a bit of a paparazzi myself!

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After the mountain monks chant in the Kannon Hall they proceed to the special site. Gathering around a special pile of green branches called “saito” they chant sutras once more.

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One of the rituals to purify the area is performed using a bow to shoot arrows in the four directions, this is similar in concept to an exorcism supposedly. COOL!

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The fire is then carried down from the temple to the “saito” (branches)

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The “saito” is then lit on fire by two monks

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At first I was a little confused why our Japanese friends suggested standing so far away (I wanted to be right up front!) but now I understood why. The heat generated by this massive bonfire was extraordinary.

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Things got just a “teeeeensy” bit smokey for a bit.

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Then in a very cool way, the smoke started to cyclone up into the sky!

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Before long it was the largest raging bonfire I had ever seen!

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The huge pile of wood burned away to ashes surprising quickly.

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As the flames began to die I decided it was time to move closer to the action.

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The final step before the hiwatari ritual can commence is scattering copious quantities of salt on the ashes. Salt purifies the ground and I’m not joking when I say the monks scattered 3 ENORMOUS bags of salt!

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The first of many monks to walk over the ashes, I can only imagine how hot they would be so fresh after the fire!

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The monks prayed as they walked across the ashes.

After all of the monks had crossed the ashes it was the moment of truth.  Festival participants were invited to walk barefoot across the ashes too.  I had been pretty determined to participate in the hiwatari at the beginning of the day but, by this time an ambulance had arrived at the site of the ritual “just in case” and the looks of the monks as they walked across the ashes had scared me a little. As the locals began to line up, our Japanese friends gave us a quick run down of the rules:

  • We must take our shoes and socks off.
  • We absolutely must not run across the ashes, walking steadily and slowly was essential – this is because the momentum of running would push your feet deeper into the ashes, potentially leading to burns on the more sensitive upper parts of your feet.
  • We should hold our hands before us in prayer.
  • Don’t stop once you start. You must continue walking, regardless of any minor pain, or risk getting burned.

Ummmm…..yikes! I now definitely had butterflies. This wasn’t going to be just some walk in the park, real danger and potential pain were on the line.

As a passionate runner and avid hiker, my feet are very valuable to me. The thought of burning them and not being able to be active was definitely something to stop and give me pause. After a quick mental pep talk I hopped in line with my friends.

Far too quickly I was standing next in line. I watched nervously as the person in front of me began her ordeal.  The monk at the entrance to the hiwatari said something to me and then I froze. This was it. What felt like a milky-white fog of fear descended over my mind. All I could think about was that in less than 2 seconds it was my turn….could I really actually be about to do this?! Was I insane? This was a crazy idea, what was I thinking!  My heart started beating frantically. Could I actually do this?

Yes. You can.

The simple words floated into my mind from somewhere deeper, somewhere calm and serenity still existed, from far behind the mental fog that was clouding my mind.

I took a deep breath, raised my hands in respectful prayer, the monk pushed me forward slightly, so I lowered my eyes and began to walk. IMG_0161

While the coals were not burning hot, they were quite warm, as I reached the centre area of the ashes I felt a slight twinge of pain from too much heat. I inhaled sharply, but I had promised not to stop, and so I compelled myself forward. The pain disappeared. One deep breath later my feet stepped off the ashes and into a large pile of salt at the end. I was finished.

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A sense of euphoria filled me as I met the eyes of the inquisitive monk waiting on the other side, who asked if I was ok after the hiwatari. My answering smile was the uncontrollable, honest, window-into-your-soul type. I think I smiled for this stranger more brightly than I have ever smiled at any family member, friend, or past lover. He will never know that. I was not ok, I was so much more than just “ok”.

It is moments like these when I can fully understand why some people believe so strongly in god or religion. I was not raised religiously, but that doesn’t mean I don’t believe in a higher power. I’ve always been fascinated with eastern religions and took many elective classes about them during the course of my university studies. One idea that has always stayed with me is the Hindu idea of Brahman, which is said to be the source of creation of all things and within all living beings.  I won’t get into actually discussing the religion of Hinduism, I will leave that to individuals who are far more qualified than myself.  Instead I shall write about what this idea means to me, and how learning about it has since then influenced my life.

When I first learned about the concept of Brahman I envisioned a divine force responsible for creation and the beauty of life as we know it, and also, that simultaneously residing within each and every single living thing, a tiny spark of this same divine power exists.  This spark to me is the key to becoming all that I can be in the best way possible. The difficulty however, lies in learning to hear it.  

This little spark has different names: conscience, inner voice, “that little voice inside our head”.  While I often refer to this spark as my inner voice, secretly in my mind I like to call it “one’s true self”. It’s this spark of deeper divinity and understanding of the world as a whole,  inside of us all, that tries to push us in the best direction and help us to grow, to do the right thing or to follow our heart. It’s a deeper instinct to do and be good.  Screen shot 2013-07-15 at 12.40.21 PM

I think by learning to listen carefully to this inner voice we can tap into its (perhaps divine) wisdom.  This wisdom and goodness can help us to change our lives for the better.  Listening to what it has to say can lead us down the path of discovering who we really are a person, while helping us to become the best version of ourselves that we can be and filling our lives with love, joy and deeper understanding of the world.

In a moment of fear, panic clouded my judgment but by listening to my inner voice I took a leap of faith and stepped into the fiery ashes and was able to experience something amazing!  My true self deep down knew I should do this, that I needed to do this, I know now I would have deeply regretted missing such an opportunity had I not, and guilt isn’t a good emotion to dwell on.

Listening to my inner voice is something I strive to become better at. With time and vigilance I find it’s gotten easier to hear and recognize. It took me a long time to realize the value in listening carefully to  it, but I do now and I also I know without a doubt that this has shaped me, and is shaping, me into a better person. Following your inner voice often leads you down the right path, even if it doesn’t necessarily make sense at the time. In my personal experience, following your heart rarely leads to lasting regrets, the adventures always outweigh any loss.

Fukui is known as the Phoenix city, it’s been burnt down many times, and the current city build up again from the ashes. Hiding everywhere in plain site is the phoenix symbol (such as the manhole covers!) so I encourage you if you ever have a chance to channel your inner Fukui phoenix spirit and test yourself by walking across the fiery ashes at Takidanji Temple. It’s an unforgettable experience (to say the least!) and you never know what will happen…perhaps your heart, like mine, will feel like a pheonix reborn from the fiery flames of the hiwatari, shining with new hope and light.

Categories: Life in Japan | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

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One thought on “Feeling like a Phoenix: Walking On Fire at Takidanji

  1. Fantastic photos, and even more amazing was the description of your experience… Takidanji Temple, sounds like some mythical place and I loved it how you waver between understanding your a mere mortal, yet treasure the idea of feeling like a god…for me that is the beauty of life.

    Your description of Hinduism is revealing: “the Hindu idea of Brahman, which is said to be the source of creation of all things and within all living beings” it is so similar to the philosophy of Daoism. Great post, really enjoyed it.

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