A Bit of Bad Fortune in Tokyo
During my stay in Japan, I observed a lot of fortune-telling in Tokyo. I write “observed” because I found it difficult to get my own fortune told given that my Japanese extends no further than, “bīru, kudasai” – one beer, please. I write “difficult” because it is a nice way of saying that I was kicked out of a fortune teller’s office.
Initially, I had planned to do some fieldwork about the culture of fortune-telling in Tokyo, much of which has found a home in Harajuku. But amongst the swarms of bustling tourists and the chaotic colours spanning the buildings in Takeshita street, I found the area disorienting and impossible to navigate.
“Siri, show me the nearest fortune teller, please!”
According to my phone, she was was five minutes away, nestled in the side streets just off the kokoro (heart, mind, and spirit) of Harajuku. At the top of three stories, accessible only through a narrow and windy staircase, I finally found the fortune teller I was looking for.
Popping my head through the door, I was immediately greeted and motioned towards a full waiting area. There I sat, filling out my name and birthdate on a small form and preparing my questions on a translation app. The fortune teller’s office was multi-faceted, quadrupling as a waiting room, office, storage space and staff common room. All areas were separated by opaque rose curtains and stacks of paper files.
Soon enough, I was waved over into the office. The fortune teller was an elderly lady, as expected, and she proceeded to speak in Japanese, as expected. This was immediately met with my blank expression.
“Do you need me to translate for you?” called out a young Japanese woman from the waiting room behind me.
“Yes, yes please!” I responded excitedly. But my excitement was quickly diffused by the fortune teller’s response to my new translator. It was a no.
The young woman looked towards me, sympathetically. “I’m sorry… she says she is too busy to do a reading for you because you need a translator and, uh… that would take too long,” she explained.
I glanced over to the crowded waiting area. I’d ignorantly assumed that I could waltz into a quiet office, without an appointment, and have my palms read or something along those lines. I was wrongly under the impression that fortune-telling was a small niche, appealing only to a few. So in our brief encounter, the fortune teller kindly apologised and ushered me out the door.
Stuttering, “G-g-gomenasai!” (sorry) I shuffled out of her office and back into the overwhelming streets, bitterly disappointed. I’ve always been interested in divination, with annual trips to my local Oracle. I wanted to learn more about Japanese practitioners, since they play a role in popular culture, politics and social attitudes in Japanese society: whether it be in the anime Urara Meirocho, Buddhism or Japan’s culture of superstition, such as the bad fortune associated with particular objects.
Not only did I not conduct the interview I wanted, but I also did not have my fortune told from a woman I’d heard through the grapevine was the Mother of Harajuku, having advised young girls in the area with boyfriend problems for over 20 years. Not only has she trademarked her name, but she has her own divination school and has been interviewed many times, though obviously not by me. She was a lovely lady – handing out green tea and chocolate biscuits to everyone as we waited patiently, but all I left with was my sad ¥500 coin and a piece of paper inscribed with my name and birthday.
Considering my fieldwork was a bit of a flop, I decided to call it a day and take the train home. Little did I know, my mystical experience was far from over. Strolling out from Nippori station through a quaint market, I came across a small plastic box situated in front of a diner. It was filled to the brim with colourful rolled papers. These rolls, known as omikuji, hold random fortunes inscribed on eye-catching patterns. I passed them while visiting Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples, as well as on some of the city streets. A floral pink omikuji caught my attention, but I turned away. I was determined to have my fortune read by a person that evening.
The night fell as I continued my trek through the marketplace. Peering around narrow alleyways and dimly lit sidewalks, I locked eyes with a woman crouched behind a small wooden barrel. A flowery tablecloth was draped over it and a spread of tarot cards with a little sign rested on top.
500¥ = 5 minutes
With my not-so-excellent Japanese, I pointed frantically towards the sign and nodded. But to my disappointment, she did not speak a word of English. Now used to being rejected, I wandered off further into the night market.
After doing my rounds of the stalls, I reflected on the pitiful unlikelihood of having my fortune read by a person and decided to return to the omikuji box. Perhaps a small strip of paper would be my last hope for a dose of divination? But to no avail, the box had disappeared on me!
I guess the universe really didn’t want me to have my fortune told at all.
Cover by Nuno Silva