“Where there is love there is life.” ~ Mahatma Gandhi
If you’ve been looking for love in all the wrong places, perhaps it’s time you visited the Jishu Shrine of love and match-making in Kyoto, Japan. Kyoto is known as the most visited place in Japan. I’ve even heard an urban legend that it’s the most visited place on the planet…outside of Mecca. While I doubt the latter claim, the former certainly holds true. As Japanese’s ancient capital and cultural and religious center spared the destructive bombings of WWII (see my blog about how the city was saved here), its extensive collection of historically important castles, temples and shrines all provide a draw for tourist and pilgrims alike.
Jishu is found within the Kiyomizu-dera temple complex, already the city’s leading tourist spot that draws massive throngs. However, finding ourselves already in Kyoto during low winter season, we decided to further reduce the risk of swarming sightseers by visiting during a random weekday…at sunrise! Actually, since it was on a hillside, I thought what a better place to view the dawn of a new day; unfortunately, I didn’t take into account that the Kiyomizu-dera provides only a westerly view…. Between the cold of winter and early time of day, we were assured a nearly private visit!
Kiyomizu-dera (清水寺, “clean” or “pure waters”), a UNESCO World Heritage site, is a complex of Buddhist temples and shrines in the hillsides of eastern Kyoto. Kiyomizu-dera was founded in 798, but the present buildings date to 1633. The massive wooden main hall features a large veranda supported by a tall and dense latticework of pillars that juts out dramatically over the hillside and offers impressive views of the city. Most amazingly, there is not a single nail used in the entire structure.
The Jishu Shrine is dedicated to Ōkuninushi, a god of love and “good matches.” Jishu Shrine gets high marks for its foreigner user-friendliness. English-language explanations of most everything are extensively provided, and proclamations of inclusivity abound: “There is only one human race even though there are many nationalities.” And perhaps most importantly, the shrine’s Ema good-luck charms are clearly explained in English, a relatively uncommon find visiting Japan’s religious sites.
While Jishu is small and an easily missed off-shoot from the main pathway through Kiyomizu-dera, it’s packed with interesting wives’ tales and superstitions about love, marriage, curses, and match-making (enmusubi). Some of the highlights for Jody and I are described below.
Love Rocks! Love may be blind, but if you believe hard enough, you can still stumble upon it…. The primary love lure of the shrine are two rocks. Yep, rocks. Love rocks. They stand about 6 meters (20 feet) apart, and according to legend, if one walks between the two stones with their eyes closed (no cheating!), then they are assured luck in love. However, should someone help along the way, one will only find love through the interloping of another. The challenge is a popular one, with the love-sick attempting to thread their way through the throngs with eyes shut and arms outstretched. While I needed a bit of guidance, Jody made the walk rather easily. Good thing she’s already mine!
Japan’s Cupid. Ōkuninushi, a Japanese “god of love.” The Jishu is one of the most famed and popular match-making shrines in Japan, and is dedicated to this god. Anyone looking for romance or marriage probably has plans to visit here, and not surprisingly, the shrine is most often full of young giggling Japanese girls. Ōkuninushi is associated with love, romance and match-making. As the spiritual hose of the annual meeting of all of Japan’s kami (Shinto spirits) in November of every year, Ōkuninushi brings the kami together, fostering relationships in the spiritual world. Therefore, by extension, he became the kami of connections in all worldly matters of love as well. However, instead of a bow and arrow, Ōkuninushi uses a…rabbit?
What’s up Doc? Well, lovers bred like rabbits, so doesn’t it make sense for Ōkuninushi to have a hare (rabbit) as a sidekick? Not quite. The legend of the Hare of Inaba has Ōkuninushi taking pity helping cure the hare who had been skinned alive as a punishment for deception. However, in a mythical twist of fortune, it turned out the hare was in reality a fellow god, and in return for Ōkuninushi’s help in restoring its skin, the hare became Ōkuninushi’s devoted ally and advised him how to obtain the love of a princess he was seeking to marry. Since then, the pair has been inseparable. Already have love; what about good fortunes?
Fortune Favors…those with 5 Yen to spend. Omikuji, literally “sacred lot,” are nothing more than random fortunes written on small slips of paper. Divination has always been a central aspect of ancient Shinto practice, one that continues to this day in the popular form of these fortune slips. At the Jishu Shrine, however, the fortunes mostly focus on love and romance. Those receiving good fates might fold and keep the Omikuji to make sure they come true. Those not so lucky in love will tie them up on a pine tree using strings provided, based on a pun of the word for pine tree (松 matsu) and the verb “’to wait” (待つ matsu), the idea being that the bad luck will wait by the tree rather than attach itself to the bearer. What a sap (get it, pun intended)!! Okay, so now you have love and good fortune. But what about the benjamins??
Money Can’t Buy You Love. Carrying a treasure sack on his back, holding a “magic money mallet,” and standing or seated on bales of rice, a rather healthy and jolly Daikoku, one of the Seven Gods of Good Fortune associated with Buddhism, can be found throughout the Jishu shrine. Originating in India as the Hindu deity Shiva, he became intertwined with the Shinto god Ōkuninushi as the characters for “Okuni” can also be read as Daikoku. Thus, as one deity traversed three countries and three religions, it became conflated in cultural and practice with another, cementing the Shinto-Buddhist syncretism. What’s more convenient in a shrine than to have access to wishes for love and wealth!! Well, one also needs a way to wash away their sins.
Healing Waters. Found within the shrine are a couple of tables with hitogata paper dolls destined to wash away your problems. The simple design, resembling a human figure, represents you the worshiper after you write your name and age over it. Once offered to the shrine’s waters in a divine purification service, it is said that your ills and evils shall be washed away. Sure beats confession.
Like a Prayer. Less Madonna’s annoying tune. Ema (Shinto prayer plaques) sell at a brisk pace, and can be found just about anywhere around the shrine. Some portray Ōkuninushi’s and his hare on one side, while others depict classic icons of love. On the blank back-side, however, is where heartfelt requests for a love-match or marriage are written. One of the most entertaining aspects of visiting the shrine is examining just how creative some of the pleas of the love-sick actually are. Now, if only we could read Japanese….
Voodoo, Japanese style. Finally, all is fair in love as the saying goes. There is always a darker side, and that is no less true than here at Jishu. Okage Myojin, a kami-guardian of women, is thought to answer a woman’s any prayer. Such kami were called upon for “ushi no toki mairi,” a prescribed method of laying a curse traditional to Japan, so-called because it is conducted during the hours of the Ox, with the proper witching hour of 2:00AM. Typically a scorned woman, dressed in white and crowned with an iron ring set with three lit candles, drives a nail through a straw effigy of the victim, impaling it into a sacred tree. The ritual must be repeated seven days running, after which the curse is believed to succeed, but being witnessed in the act is thought to nullify the spell…and probably cause quite a bit of embarrassment! The sacred tree at Jishu is a cedar, and although dead (ironically probably killed by metal poisoning), the trunk remains standing where marks of many nails can still be found. It’s very interesting to note the similarities to placing a voodoo curse in the West.
Jishu Shrine is a very small area and can be easily missed while traversing the massively broader Temple complex as it is buried deep within. But don’t let its size – or the crowds fool you – it’s most certainly worth the visit! Whether you’re taken already or not, everyone could use a little more Luck in Love. Have a visit, and enrich your life!