Love for sale at Tokyo's most romantic shrines
We all know it -- Tokyo's so-called “cool factor” draws travelers eager to explore the quixotic mixture of traditional and pop culture that defines the city and its people, we're told. So much yadda yadda, we say right back.
What if you've come here looking for something else? Like, say, romance? Steady now ...
Forget the sticky back alleys of Shinjuku's Kabukicho or rowdy Center Gai street in Shibuya. Instead, take your lonely heart and do with it what the Japanese do -- go to the shrine. But not just any shrine.
A Love Shrine.
Love shrines have nothing to do with those charge-by-the-hour temples to Eros crowded onto the hills of Shibuya.
Instead, generations have believed a tiny handful of Shinto shrines hold the power to help them find and keep their one true love. Prayers, charms and blessing tablets on sale at these holy sites are devoted to l-o-v-e.
Tokyo's top three love shrines are in a divine romance category all by themselves and pull in thousands of Japanese hoping for a heavenly reboot of the heart. Luckily for visitors, all are centrally located and easy to find if you know what to look for.
Tokyo Daijingu is the city's most powerful shrine for matters of the heart. Actually, it's one of the most powerful shrines for just about anything.
That includes business luck, so visitors can combine business and pleasure in one convenient stopover.
Daijingu is affiliated with the Ise Grand Shrine in Mie Prefecture, one of Shinto's holiest sites for more than 1,300 years.
The Meiji Emperor ordered the creation of Daijingu in 1880 so more people could receive the legendary blessings of Ise without the impossible expense of the long journey south to Mie.
At the actual Ise Shrine, visitors can barely approach the holy building. Here, anyone can walk in and wander around.
Japanese -- especially young women -- come to Daijingu for many reasons but especially to pray for a new love or to save a troubled one.
On a sunny Saturday the line of hopeful (hopeless?) romantics dressed in their best can stretch all the way to the torii gate.
When that happens, shrine workers try to get worshippers to make two lines. Nearly everyone chooses the one on the right, insisting it is stronger. Really.
Colorful love charms blessed by the priests are for sale and people buy, buy, buy.
One omamori charm swings open like a locket to hold a picture of your beloved. Painted wooden enmusubi ema tablets come in several designs. “Enmusubi” means to join together and is used in conjunction with love and marriage charms.
The grounds are small, so don't expect the size and scale of the Ise Shrine. Remember, with spiritual energy, it's not how big you are, but how you use it.
More on CNNGo: Insider guide -- what to do in Tokyo
Competing with Daijingu for top Tokyo love shrine is Imado Jinja. Tucked at the far end of Asakusa, away from the bright cluster of temples, shops and the creakingly old Hanayashiki Amusement Park, it’s an offbeat stop well worth the 15-minute walk from the station.
Claimed to be the origin of Japan’s famous maneki neko (beckoning lucky cat), Imado’s symbol is two cats, male and female, joined together in their beckoning pose, little paws raised high.
There's an important difference in which paw the cat holds up -- right beckons luck for a person, left brings luck in work. Both paws up is just greedy.
The shrine is a pilgrimage point for people from all over the country seeking constancy in a lover or lover-to-be.
And not just young men and women -- Imado draws romantics of all ages. Cat lovers, too. Though not in the literal sense. We hope.
After praying, visitors line up to purchase charms to ensure their love luck continues. Queues can stretch up to three hours during the New Year's holidays. Yes, three whole hours. This place is popular.
Even on a nondescript, gloomy Thursday, a busload of people piled into the shrine as we watched, waiting their turn for one of the double-cat charms the place is known for.
It's also considered good love luck to take a picture of the two cats in the main shrine.
Many visitors boost their divine visibility with a wooden enmusubi ema. The cat couple adorning it is painted in Imperial court robes styled after the national Doll's Festival.
People write their wishes on the back for love -- or other things. One we saw said, “Please make me a D-cup.” Again, really.
They then hang the tablets with thousands of others on racks in front of the main shrine for the gods’ reading pleasure.
The grounds are not landscaped -- unless you count gravel as landscaping -- and that's OK. The shrine's purpose is to facilitate love, not contemplation.
There's a cheerful, happy buzz with all those smiling cats and buzzed visitors. It's charming and kitschy and at the same time, so very shitamachi (downtown, not uptown), which is what Asakusa is all about.
Don't miss the collection of plastic cat-shaped watering cans. Actually, they're pretty hard to ignore.
More on CNNGo: The world's geekiest temple
Izumo Taisha Tokyo Bunsha
The entertainment district of Roppongi is not the kind of place you normally look for lasting love, but it is home to celebrated love shrine, Izumo Taisha Tokyo Bunsha.
Located on a side street opposite Roppongi Hills and surrounded by restaurants and businesses, it's easy to miss.
There is no beautiful garden or towering cypress, just a braided straw rope stretched across two metal flagpoles.
Compared to the quiet nobility of Daijingu and quirky, but endearing, Imado Jinja, Izumo Taisha has the emotional resonance of a post office. But appearances are deceiving.
Especially in this country.
Izumo Taisha is particularly popular among those who want to marry but perhaps haven't found their soul mate yet. There's a charm for that.
The shrine is also an important destination for engaged couples or newlyweds to ask that their bond be a lasting one. There's a charm for that, too.
Not to over generalize, but constancy rather than passion takes center stage in the ideal Japanese marriage and this is a strong theme in all three shrines -- could it be why Izumo Taisha is so demure, perhaps?
A trip round these three love-centered shrines can provide wonderful insight into everyday life and the grassroots culture of the Japanese nation.
And you never know, it might bring some romance into your life -- it just takes a little faith, some patience for standing in line and the cash for a readily available wooden charm or two.
Japanese shrines and temples close at around 5 p.m., so plan your itinerary carefully. Most charms cost between ¥500 and ¥800 (US$6-$9), ema tablets ¥800-¥1000.
As no one navigates to out-of-the-way offbeat shrines like these by street address, it's all about burning shoe leather to get there.
Tokyo Daijingu: Iidabashi Station, five minutes. Exit A4. Come out of the exit and walk straight ahead along the busy road on the right-hand side. Pass the Sunkus convenience store and several café chains and go past the first set of traffic signals to the next small street.
When you see a Chinese restaurant on one corner and a 7-Eleven on the other, turn right. Keep walking, go up the short flight of stairs then right at the top. The shrine entrance is just a few meters away. Website.
Imado Jinja: Asakusa Station, 10-15 minutes. Exit 7. At the top of the stairs go to your right and out of the building. The street in front is Edo Dori. Cross to the other side of the street and walk to the left, keeping the Sumida River on your right. It's a great walk with views of the new Skytree here and there.
Pass the baseball ground and the long row of paper lanterns (it's a theater). The next building is the Riverside Sports Complex. At the traffic light in front of the complex, the road divides in two. Take the left fork. Walk just over a block and the entrance to Imado Jinja is on your left. Website.
Izumo Taisha Tokyo Bunsha: Roppongi Station, three minutes. From the Hibiya Line, take Exit 2. Walk straight ahead past Mediya supermarket to the next corner with a Lawson convenience store on one side and Leonard Goji boutique on the other. Turn right, the shrine is 10-15 meters down the street on the left. Website.
More on CNNGo: Top reasons to visit Japan this year