Fortune rookie: one man’s fateful journey through Japan

written by James Shackell May 29, 2015

“Nothing will go well, so you always feel uneasy.” With these words, the dragon robot sealed my fate.

It was the first day of my two week tour through Japan. I’d been walking beneath the cherry blossoms of Ueno Park, a little slice of calm amid Tokyo’s neon bustle, when I stumbled across a small fortune-telling machine. It was a glass cube, about three feet by three feet, inside which sat a robotic dragon. He looked friendly enough, if not particularly mystical. Our guide, Sylvia, explained: you insert a 100 Yen coin and this oracular lizard spits out a fortune.

Group fortunes. Image Jess Lee

Group fortunes. Image Jess Lee

I’ve always been a sucker for fortune telling. Cookies, riddles, palm reading, tarot – it doesn’t matter. I like the idea that someone, something, out there has my back (or is at least paying attention). It really takes the pressure off. So naturally I fished around in my pocket and pulled out a coin. It fell down with a ‘schlunk’. The small dragon robot sat up. He twisted and turned a bit, opened his mouth a few times, and stared out from his glass prison as if weighing my soul or pondering the sound of one hand clapping. Then he turned to a small slot, grabbed a slip of paper in his teeth, and dropped it into a hole. I reached down and picked up my future. This is what it said:

Your fortune:
Nothing will go well, so you always feel uneasy. Maybe so do your relatives. Be religious and believe in God and you’ll be happier one of these days.
Wish: You have a lot of troubles now. Don’t make haste.
Expected visitor: He or she will come, but late.
Missing thing: It will be found, but turn out to be useless.
Travel: Watch out for thieves.
Childbirth: No problem. Easy.
Illness: Consult a good doctor and you’ll be cured.
Marriage proposal: You’ll be at a loss which one to decide on. Keep cool.

Quite a mixed bag. My imminent stress-free labour notwithstanding, it looked like my life wasn’t going so well. Consult a good doctor? Watch out for thieves? Uneasy relatives? The dragon robot had weighed my chances and found them wanting. I had a sudden urge to get a full body MRI scan. It was at that moment I decided to collect as many fortunes as I could during my time in Japan. If this one didn’t suit, I’d find one that did.

Luckily this modest ambition is pretty easy to realise. Japan thrives on providence. Superstition is a way of life there. Most shrines and temples have their own dedicated fortune booth, a small staffed window or row of drawers filled with printed portents of luck (or in my case doom). You can buy amulets to ward off everything from relationship woes to traffic accidents. In Koya-San (a small monastic town up in the hills) we found a very famous pine tree; the story goes that, if you find a three-pronged pine needle beneath the tree, good fortune is yours. After rooting through about 1000 two-pronged pine needles, I decided the whole thing was probably some sort of metaphor for life, and gave up.

Fortunes left behind. Image THINK Global School

Fortunes left behind. Image THINK Global School

From that first day at Ueno Park, my predictions got worse. The next few seemed to relish in the calamities coming my way. Some were elliptical and poetic (“Like a fish can’t meet water, there may be so many possibility to be a bad case for you”) others were quite blunt (“Any kind of marriage, to start a new trip, new employment are all bad”). In Kyoto I was informed “Your body is one but with two different kind mind, so everything goes out of order.”

It became a running joke with our tour group. People started buying fortunes for me, perhaps simply in the hopes of keeping me alive until the end of the trip. At a loss (and starting to fear for my cosmic safety) I collected more and more, but nothing changed.

“The request will not be granted.”
“The patient will be unhappy” (terminally unhappy!?)
“The lost article will not be found.”

On the last day of the tour. Sylvia looked at my collection.

“Why have you been keeping them?” she said.
“If they’re bad, you tie them at the temples. You leave them behind. No-one carries bad luck around with them.”

It turns out I had been drawing misfortune to myself, wandering around the country like a magnet for hopelessness. When you receive a bad fortune, you’re meant to tie it on a small rack or tree at the temple sites, leaving your ill luck behind (presumably for the spirits, or some other poor sap, to deal with). Instead I’d being accumulating and transporting them as much as I could, which is probably a very Western attitude to life in general.

“You should let them go,” Sylvia said. “You don’t want to keep them with you.”

I thought about it, but decided not to. I’d become attached to my fortunes. They were mine, after all. I’d come to like their dire outlook, and find humour in the way each of them tried to out-doom the others. I reasoned you don’t get to choose your fortunes, otherwise they wouldn’t be fortunes. That’s kind of the point. Besides, they weren’t all bad. A few began not with predictions, but descriptions: strange little vignettes that seemed to me weirdly beautiful.

On the final day of my trip, I tried one last time. ‘Schlunk’ went the coin. The dragon robot (this time an older, slightly arthritic model with a long grey beard) did his strange little dance. I reached in and picked up my future:

“On the field path where I was overtaken by night and got lost, the moon began to shine quietly.”

Feature image c/o Jeff Laitila, Flickr 


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