I went demon-hunting today.
February 3 is the Japanese festival of setsubun, which according to the traditional calendar was the eve of the New Year and of spring, but which now falls quite squarely in the dead of winter. Two days ago, we were buried briefly under five centimetres of fluffy, wet snow, a rare occurrence in Tokyo. On my way to the temple for today’s festivities, my breath goes before me like a cloud of mist, and my cheeks are already pink with cold.
Setsubun simply means “division of the seasons,” but it is a festival of bean-throwing and demon masks. The popping sound of roasting soybeans is said to scare away evil spirits, and people scatter the beans out the back door and in the front door of their houses, yelling “Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi!” Demons out, blessings in.
It’s the demons in particular that captivate me. Japanese demons have red or blue skin, curly hair, cow’s horns and fanged, toothy grins, and they’ve always struck me as ferociously adorable. Although today’s holiday is about chasing out demons and inviting in happiness, I confess that I’m particularly obsessed with the chasing out part.
The past month has been a creatively challenging one for me, and I’ve had my own horde of unwelcome demons to contend with: those inner voices that tell me I’m not good enough, my writing is juvenile, creativity is a waste of time if it’s not lucrative, I’ll never create anything worthwhile, and so much more. Perhaps you’re familiar with these demons too. As author Byron Katie is fond of saying, “There are no new stressful thoughts,” and I believe her; my own demons are almost boring in their stock predictability.
Nevertheless, they’ve had a chokehold on me for the past couple of weeks, and I’m looking forward to a festival that’s all about driving them out. I’m hoping to learn a thing or two from Japanese children, whom I’ve heard are encouraged to throw soybeans at people in demon masks to scare them away. I could use a bit of that plucky, peppery courage. I’ve even chosen a temple that I imagine will specialize in demons: Kishibojin temple is dedicated to a demon mother who became a Buddhist saint when she learned the meaning of compassion. I’m expecting colourful masks and costumes, and the satisfying thunk of soybeans bouncing off demon hide.
I make my way by train to the temple, where a group of silver-haired men and women is executing a slow and stately traditional dance and a few rickety food stalls are shivering in the grey afternoon air. A patchy crowd of people has begun to gather, but nowhere near the 1,000 promised on the temple website. As I listen to a fresh, young police officer making safety announcements over the loudspeaker, I realize that as so often happens to me in Japan, I’ve gotten it all wrong. I’m an hour early, and the celebration consists not of demon-chasing but of celebrities standing on a curtained platform, flinging little packages of soybeans into the mob.
I’m disappointed to miss the demons, but I decide that I might as well stay. I pass the time by wiggling my toes to keep them from freezing, and by watching the eclectic mix of people who’ve come to catch blessings: little pre-schoolers in their matching caps; elderly women in kimono with sweater-clad dachshunds trotting at their sides; young businessmen and women in dark suits trying to impress their bosses; university students with baggy pants and shaggy, orange hair. I catch a glimpse of a little boy running around in a red mask and think “There we go!” but then I notice it’s a Spiderman mask. Not quite what I was looking for.
As the celebrities mount the stage and the bean-throwing ceremony begins at last, the crowd surges forward as one, and reaches a multitude of hands into the air. “Fuku wa uchi! Fuku wa uchi! Fuku wa uchi!” the emcee and the soybean-flingers shout over and over again, as little coloured parcels rain down on the crowd. Blessings in, blessings in, blessings in.
After the first round of soybeans has been scattered and the festival organizers are handing around the bags for round two, I turn and begin the long walk back to the train station. The sun is setting, my toes are numb, and I’m feeling vaguely disappointed and distinctly underwhelmed. Where were all the demons? This wasn’t what I signed up for.
Yet as I ride home on the train with the other weary commuters, lulled into somnolence by the heater blasting under my feet, I can’t get the image of all those outstretched hands out of my mind. Trusting hands. Expectant hands. Reaching upward for the blessings that are sure to come. When was the last time I held my hands out like that? Have I been so preoccupied with finding ways to chase away my demons that I’ve forgotten to open my heart to the blessings that are always and everywhere being flung into our midst?
I get off at my local train station and trudge up and down the stairs and out into the street. As I turn my half-thawed feet homewards, I feel a surprisingly sharp sting on my cheek; I look down and there are snowflakes clinging to my wool coat like tiny, frozen crumbs. Something inside me unclenches and unfurls, a closed fist opening.
I went demon-hunting today and came home empty-handed, snowflakes and soybeans raining down on my upturned palms.
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My questions for you: What if all the inspiration, all the creativity, all the blessings you need are available to you in this very moment, if you would but open your hands to receive? What would you do differently today?