Kyoto, Japan - I'm standing at the entrance of Jishu Shrine. I can't help myself - I have to have a love scroll. I'm here because I've run away. Run away from things that were bothering me back home: a heading-nowhere job, then a heading-nowhere layoff.
The topper? A flotsam relationship.
I'm down on my luck in the love department anyway, so I allow Yuki, in her burst of hospitality and national pride, to buy me a love fortune. This is my first visit, and I'm told this tiny white scroll, a steal at 300 yen a pop, holds my kismet. The intricate weave of the katakana characters has Yuki entranced. "The man you wait for will not come," she translates.
Not a good start.
Thankfully, the sweet-tempered Shinto deity honoured here, Okuninushino-Mikoto, knows that love can be capricious. If you receive a less than stellar reading here, simply tie the offending scroll into a tree branch on the shrine grounds. The belief is that if you leave your bad fortune behind, it can't follow you.
Jishu Jinja (or shrine) is located in Kyoto on the grounds of one of the country's most famous temples, the Temple of Pure Water, Kiyomizu-dera. This smaller shrine, built in 1633 by shogun Iemitsu Tokugawa, is an amazing sight.
Vermilion streamers and red-and-white paper lanterns adorn the many altars celebrating love and happy unions. Giggling schoolgirls rush past, clamouring for the right white scroll. Couples, timidly holding hands, pat the belly of Daikokusan, a minor deity who also promises to be the harbinger of happiness.
Write the name of your beloved on paper streamers and dolls attached to bamboo. Or write wishes of any kind - the gods have no prejudice.
Year after year, Jishu attracts visitors ranging from the stereotypically pragmatic Japanese to eager, camera-toting tourists from around the world. Love-struck and love-hungry men and women flock here, buying love charms and making offerings of both yen and prayer at the various altars.
What keeps them coming back? Yet another chance to try their luck with the love stones. The love stones (koiuranai no ishi), a pair of rocks about 6 metres apart, hold centre court in the shrine grounds. Legend has it that if you are able to walk successfully between them with your eyes closed while repeating your beloved's name, luck in love will be yours.
I don't try. Though a self-professed cynic, I have to admit I hold a certain regard for true love. What if I failed? Unlike the white scrolls, I wouldn't be able to leave that bad fortune behind. I visit Jishu three times over the course of a year. And each time, I give fate a nudge by buying yet another scroll, hoping it will erase the destiny Yuki read on my first visit. The second trip brings a curiously more positive prediction: "If you are patient, you can count on many offers of marriage," it reads. I hang onto that one.
The third pilgrimage yields tepid results. As insurance, my Canadian friend Alison and I buy love tokens for each other. With our respective paramours on the other side of the world, we both need something to believe in.
Love tokens, called omamori (from the Japanese "mamoru," meaning to protect or defend) are flat, rectangular cloth bags with a decorative knot at the top to keep them closed. Their contents vary depending on where they're obtained. It could be soil from hallowed ground, or a paper talisman with an inscription. The point is not to look inside the bag but to keep it close to you and associate it with a sacred person or place. We choose the "luck in love" omamori in crimson silk and hope for the best.
A year later, I've come home to my beau, who is more than glad to have me back. He has finally professed his love and even suggests we jet off to a faraway island in the South Pacific. Happily ever after? We'll see. I don't have a love token for that yet.