As I approached the center of the temple and proceeded to bow before the deity within, I felt quite certain that in that moment - he was as happy to see me as I was to see him. As it turns out, I don’t think he cared much for my company after all.
A combination of jet-lag, sake, and 7-11 sushi was beginning to take its collective toll.
It was the morning after I had arrived and I was starting to feel the unfortunately familiar sensation of slight vertigo. I had experienced the same thing a year prior when a steady dose of anxiousness coupled with hair loss medication had caused my blood pressure to behave in the manner of an air show jet pilot - dramatically climbing and descending for the amusement of others, while I could do was wonder just how many out of those in the bleachers below, were silently rooting for me to crash.
Thankfully the sheer excitement of having finally been in Japan served as a sort of counterweight, and instead of worrying about whether or not I was going to collapse at any moment, I was actually having a good time. Despite physically feeling a bit like I had been worked over by Yakuza bouncers the night before, I truly was enjoying myself.
My Japanese friend and guide ushered me into the main hall of the temple and explained the steps of the upcoming ritual. I was to ring a bell, bow twice, and then clap twice before forming my hands in prayer to gain an audience with the spirit inside. I tossed a coin into the collection box, and began.
Asakusa, Senso-ji temple by Yoav Aziz on Unsplash
Never having been the meditative type, I found it difficult to focus on prayer.
My attention instead shifted to those around me, and I took comfort in noticing just how - for a lack of better words, chilled out everyone seemed in that moment. In the weeks leading up to my departure from New York City, I had made a habit of finding and engaging in various activities that my friends and I had deemed “wholesome.” This was certainly one of them.
The now un familiar feeling of positivity was beginning to make me question the last occasion on which such a smile had appeared on my face. Could I even recall? I think it almost did once in 2012 when my friend walked through a screen door while holding a big plate of burgers, but aside from that - I really couldn’t tell you.
As I walked down the steps and back into the massive courtyard, my friend led me towards a strange wall of what kind of looked like lockers.
Here stood the place in which you could receive a fortune if you so pleased. I, being in good spirits, felt that nothing could be more appropriate for such an event.
There was something of a ritual involved in this phase as well. You needed to drop a coin into a box, and then retrieve this large shaker contraption. In lieu of dice, it was filled with these long thin sticks, of which a random one would drop out after you shook it. You would then read the number on said stick, which corresponded with the locker containing your fortune.
What came next was an immediate flashback to quite possibly my favorite episode of “Rocko’s Modern Life.”
The translation was not in perfect English, but the point was clear.
It also happened to say BAD FORTUNE directly across the top, just to avoid any potential confusion. I can't recall word for word what it said, but several excerpts continue to haunt me.
The patient shall not leave the bed, recovery will be long.
It then went on to describe that if my prayers were to be cured of a particular ailment, now would not be the time. Not to say that I would never be well again, it just wouldn’t be anytime soon. Thankfully, I’m told I’m in quite decent health, despite my frequent assertions of the contrary. In any case, this one was quickly eclipsed by the following.
Travel will be met with great hardship, setting abroad is not advised.
It was tempting to fall into the horoscope-esque trap of believing that this was now divinely hand-picked for me. However, I was standing in the middle of a major tourist attraction, surely such a thing was written so that it could easily apply to any of those around me. Slightly less at ease now, I continued.
The business venture will fail, do not begin new employment.
I was now growing tired of this game and it was becoming visibly clear. My friend took noticed this and flashed an inquisitive look. I turned the paper towards them, and they leaned over to inspect the Japanese.
They studied it for a moment, and then laughed.
“Don’t worry,” they told me.
“It’s just a joke. Here I’ll show you.”
Bad fortunes by Boudewijn Huysmans on Unsplash
As we rounded the corner, more bad fortunes appeared.
Hundreds of them probably. All strung up on some sort of clothes hanger contraption.
“See? Everyone gets bad fortunes.”
As a matter of fact they did. So as tradition would have it, there exists a system for dealing with them. I was to simply tie mine along one of the poles, and the powers that be would prevent it from coming true. I think I heard them say they actually burn them at the end of the day. I’d be fine with that.
It took me longer than I would have liked to get the folding technique down, but I got it to stick eventually, and soon we were on our way.
As we walked through the gate to the street, I fell silent for a moment. Partially because I had exhausted all of my Japanese, but also because I was thinking about the fortune still. Not because I believed it had any actual bearing on the outcome of my endeavors, but because it made me consider the fact that nothing is still guaranteed. There was of course a chance that this whole thing might not work out.
My friend noticed me drifting again. They somehow seemed to know what I was thinking without saying it.
“You’re going to do great here.”
Man, I hope that they’re right.