by Hank Leukart
September 14, 2011

From omikuji, a bad omen

A visit to Tokyo’s Meiji Jingu Shrine during the Japanese New Year.

Shinto worshippers throw coins and pray at Meiji Jingu shrine.

Shinto worshippers throw coins and pray at Meiji Jingu shrine. (view all Harajuku & Meiji Jingu, Tokyo, Japan photos)

T

OKYO, Japan — It’s the day after the Japanese New Year, 2011, and I’m standing on Jingu Bridge, outside the Harajuku subway station, looking toward the entrance of Tokyo’s famous Meiji Jingu Shrine, amidst a sea of tens of thousands of Tokyo residents. We’re all walking together, in a surprisingly orderly fashion, through the torii, the Shinto shrine’s traditional Japanese gate. I’m the only person who’s not Japanese. I’ve only been in Japan for one night so far, but I’ve already learned that everyone in Japan always seems to know exactly where they’re going and what they’re doing. Tokyo seems like a place where everything always runs perfectly: the subway trains are always on time and the city’s streets are impeccably clean. In comparison, New York seems like a half-assed attempt at a city. So, I keep following the crowd, trusting that they’re not going to steer me wrong.

I have taken the subway’s Yamanote Line here because my guidebook suggests that I try to get a glimpse of cosplay girls — Japanese teenage girls who express their individuality outside of school by congregating on Jingu Bridge, wearing goth makeup, and dressing like Japanese anime and manga characters. I’m conflicted, because, while I’m dying to snap a few of my own photos of the Harajuku girls that have become iconic of Japanese culture, I’m also worried that I’ll be inadvertently contributing to a creepy rebelling-teenage-girl-zoo atmosphere. But, as I look around, I realize that my worries about my bizarre photo safari are irrelevant, because there are no cosplay girls to be found. Instead, I’m enveloped by a black and gray mob (it’s rare that I see anyone in Japan wearing any colors other than black or gray) heading toward the Shrine.

The crowd is so dense that I’m afraid that if I stop moving, I will be trampled, so I keep moving, passing sake barrels with inscrutable Japanese characters on them. I am confused. Why are all these people here and what’s going to happen?! I wonder. Worried that I’ll be expected to partake in a mysterious, ancient Japanese tradition — a tradition that ends in me being sacrificed for being the only clueless gaijin (non-Japanese person) here — I start searching frantically for information on my phone about how to behave at a Japanese shrine. I discover that it’s traditional for Japanese people to visit a shrine during the first week of January. Then, I find the shrine’s web site, which, says that over three million people visit Meiji Jingu during the Japanese New Year, which explains the large crowd. I also find a series of ridiculous stick-figure diagrams, with an explanation that says that when I enter the shrine, I must wash my left hand, right hand, mouth, and left hand again at a wash basin. Then, I must wash the water ladle, ring a bell, throw coins into an offering box, bow twice, clap twice, make a wish, and then, finally, bow again. I also read that, when I’m done, I’ll get an omikuji, a strip of paper with a written fortune predicting my life outlook for the coming year. The whole thing seems a bit silly, but I feel relieved that these illustrated instructions will allow me to avoid a major cultural faux pas.

Still, I am totally bewildered, and, as I approach the wall of policemen directing traffic into the shrine, my stress level doubles. How can I be expected to remember all of these tasks? Wait, do I bow once or twice before I clap? And do I clap once or twice? And will the offering box accept American currency?! And can I wish for unlimited wishes? Is that even allowed? And what if my omikuji tells me that no one will ever love me again?! THEN WHAT?!

I’m preparing to run as fast as I can away from the shrine into the surrounding forest when a policeman looks straight at me. I’m terrified that he knows that I’m an imposter who has ended up here by accident, and I’m sure that he’s going to subject me to a two hour Shrine Visitation Test before letting me enter. Thankfully, though, after looking disapprovingly at my blue shirt and backpack, he waves me through the gate. I’M PRACTICALLY JAPANESE! I think, excitedly. But, I’m reminded once I’m inside the shrine and see everyone staring at my towering height and blue eyes that no one has mistaken me for a worshipper of Shinto. LOOK, DISAPPROVING PEOPLE, I DIDN’T EVEN COME HERE INTENTIONALLY, I yell. I WAS TRYING TO GET SOME PHOTOS OF SOME REBELLIOUS TEENAGE GIRLS, SO CHILL OUT. Actually, I’m only yelling this in my head, to avoid being arrested for being the world’s creepiest creep.

I follow the mob to a parking lot-sized offering area in front of the shrine’s main building. Already, I realize, I’ve failed, because the impenetrable crowd has made it impossible for me to get to the temizuya, the basin at which I’m supposed to wash myself. I took a shower this morning, I say to myself, trying to rationalize my behavior. I realize that others seem to have skipped this step too, and I hope that the Shinto Gods only enforce this rule on less crowded days at the Shrine. When I reach the front of the crowd, I watch as hundreds of people — adults, teenagers, and children — throw coins into the offering area, make wishes, bow, and clap. Feeling about as self-conscious as the first time I went to my first high school party, I join in by bowing, clapping, making a wish, and bowing again. I feel relieved that I haven’t made a total fool of myself — unless I have. I have no idea.

Afterward, I join everyone else by lining up in front of workers wearing white robes, unsure of what I’ll be subjected to next. I comfort myself by remembering that mimicking the rest of the crowd has worked pretty well up until this point. When I get the front of the line, I give the white-robed woman a five-yen coin, and she hands me a mysterious wooden box with Japanese characters on it. I see a woman next to me turn her box over, so I do the same. A small wooden dowel with a number on it slides out, and the white-robed woman gives me a corresponding piece of paper covered in Japanese writing. I’ve done it! I think. I’ve obtained my first omikuji!

I ask the woman next to me to help me read my omikuji. Her English is not good, but she translates for me as best she can.

“You’re on the cusp of a needle, or on top of an orange,” she tells me. “There will be life paths with hurdles, but the right path will come, and when it does, you must have faith and move forward. It will lead you to uncivilized heaven, so expand that path, raise culture up, cut through the hurdles, and go forth.”

“Uh, okay. Is it a good fortune?” I ask her.

“Yes, it is good,” she says solemnly.

“How was yours?” I ask her, trying to be polite.

She shakes her head and looks down at the ground. She seems genuinely worried, and I think to myself that she may be taking the proceedings a bit too seriously, considering that omikuji are simply random, pre-printed fortunes. I watch her walk toward a fence made up of long, metal wires, covered with thousands of folded omikuji.

“We tie bad omikuji to a tree or to these wires, so the bad luck doesn’t follow us,” she says. I look past her and notice thousands of Japanese shrine-visitors tying their fortunes to the fence.

Standing in the shrine, watching so many people leaving their bad omikuji behind, I find myself wondering why I’m seemingly the only person who has received a good fortune. How is it that I, the American inconvenienced by an ongoing mortgage crisis and economic recession, am getting looked upon so kindly by the Shinto gods? I feel guilty.

Three months later, I’m sitting in a bar in the Windsor Hotel in Cairo, Egypt, when I see a television with CNN reporting that the tsunami resulting from a magnitude 9.0 earthquake has destroyed towns across Japan and has caused the largest nuclear accident since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.

I open my wallet and take out my omikuji, which I have been keeping there since January for good luck. There’s a moment where, more than anything, I wish I could travel back in time and give it to the friendly woman at Meiji Jingu Shrine.

Read the second essay in this series about visiting Tokyo, in which I become a Japanese teen heartthrob.

A map of the Tokyo subway system.

A map of the Tokyo subway system.

Thousands of Tokyo residents enter Meiji Jingu Shrine during the Japanese New Year.

Thousands of Tokyo residents enter Meiji Jingu Shrine during the Japanese New Year.

A Japanese boy sits on his father’s shoulders, waiting to enter the Meiji Jingu Shrine.

A Japanese boy sits on his father’s shoulders, waiting to enter the Meiji Jingu Shrine.

Japanese police manage the Meiji Jingu Shrine’s many visitors.

Japanese police manage the Meiji Jingu Shrine’s many visitors.

A woman uses a wooden box filled with random numbers to determine which omikuji she’ll receive.

A woman uses a wooden box filled with random numbers to determine which omikuji she’ll receive.

A woman hangs a folded omikuji on a wire fence.

A woman hangs a folded omikuji on a wire fence.

Folded omikuji hang from a wire fence.

Folded omikuji hang from a wire fence.

How to Visit Tokyo’s Meiji Jingu Shrine

  • OVERVIEW: Tokyo’s most respected Shinto shrine, Meiji Jingu opened in 1920 in honor of Emperor and Empress Meiji, thought of at the first modern leaders of Japan. The country’s two largest torii (entry gates) serve as the entrance to the shrine.
  • LOGISTICS: Fly to Narita International Airport, then take the Narita Express train (55 minutes, US $38) or the Airport Narita train (80 minutes, US $17) to Tokyo. From there, take the Tokyo subway’s JR Yamanote Line and get off at Harajuku Station. Upon exiting the station, it’s just a short walk into Yoyogi Park and the shrine.
  • ENTERING AND EXITING: Start by bowing once when entering and again when leaving at the shrine’s torii (a large wooden gate).
  • RINSING: At the shrine’s temizuya (a stone wash basin), start by rinsing your left hand, followed by your right hand. Second, pour water into your left hand and use it to rinse your mouth. Third, rinse your left hand again, and then rinse the water dipper. The water dipper should never touch your lips.
  • PRAYING OR MAKING A WISH: Start by ringing the bell that hangs in front of the offering box (though some shrines, including Meiji Jingu, do not have a hanging bell). Next, throw coins into the wooden offering box. Then, bow twice, clap your hands twice, pray and/or make a wish, and then bow once more.

Comments

  • September 17, 2011, 10:52 AM

    Erin

    Wow Hank. That was a really poignant end to the story. As always, great article....

  • October 6, 2011, 4:11 AM

    Lotusgirl

    Crazy turn of events. Very interesting. I love your candid approach. Plus, your reflections after the Tsunami left me with tears in my eyes.