What the stones at Kyoto’s Jishu Jinja shrine can teach us and warn us about love
BY MATTHEW WILLIS
DARKNESS. A FEW MINUTES FOR adjusting eyes did nothing. Light had no place in the hall. Wooden beads ran along the unseen wall, my only guide. They shepherded me around clumsy corners to a literal light at the tunnel’s end. A single bulb. It shone a focused beam, somehow keeping everything else in total darkness.
As I approached, the light grew bigger, wider, round like an iris. The bulb hovered above a stone: a round tablet, the Sanskrit rune for “heart” carved onto the surface. Despite standing directly beside it, only the symbol was lit. I remained in the dark, un-illuminated.
Past this altar, up some stairs, I emerged from the Tainai meguri, the hall located beneath the Kiyomizu-dera temple, into a hot, sunny, Kyoto morning.
This was my first trip to Japan. Just prior, I had gone through another breakup. Love never had much luck or logic for me: dozens of flings between one-year relationships. Another notch in the bedpost, another salad of reasons why it would simply not work out. Divorce occurred regularly in my childhood; step-parents came and went, everyone fell in love, out again, then found it somewhere else. I told myself I would not be like this. But so far, I had broken records. Was I okay, I asked myself, or was something wrong with my heart? Why did I fall in and out of love so easily?
When you uproot a plant, you see the blossoms and roots as a whole. You can judge its overall health. I believe the same applies to a traveller far from home. As a stranger in a strange land, my sojourn through the heart of darkness tickled my soul and offered a peek of something. The light and the altar beneath the Kiyomizu-dera temple, had moved me. But I required more digging.
The Kiyomizu-dera is a Buddhist temple located on the side of a small mountain in east Kyoto. Shinto shrines dedicated to matchmaking, fertility, marriage, and child-birth deities sit silently amongst the temple’s Buddhist halls.
My next stop in the temple — the Jishu Jinja shrine, the entrance marked by the classic Japanese arch known as a torii. Passing through a torii denotes the threshold of a Shinto shrine, marking the transition from the mundane to the sacred.
The Jishu Jinjara shrine is home to the Koi Uranai no Ishi, or “love-fortune stones”. Dating from the prehistoric Jomon period (14,000 – 300 B.C.E.), each stone is the size of a backpack, adorned with rope and wooden charms. They sit fifty meters apart, across a narrow pathway flanked by other altars and wooden kiosks. A sign in English above one stone reads:
‘This stone is called “Love-fortune-telling” stone. If you walk safely from this stone to the other stone with your eyes closed. for once, your wish’ll be granted soon. If you can’t, it will be long before your love is realized. And it is said taking advice requires you to have someone who’ll help you achieve your love.’
I stood by these stones and had a think. A pleasant thought, a wish fulfilled by such a simple task. Touch one stone and walk with closed eyes then, bam! – my love dreams come true. But a rational mind knows a real relationship between these rocks and one’s love life is no more reliable than touching St. John’s statue in Prague or the bronze bull’s balls on Wall Street for luck. A fun idea, but fantastical.
Surprisingly, an inner romantic survived the chaos of my childhood, one that would have made Henry VIII raise an eyebrow. I wanted to walk the stones – to coin the expression – and fulfill the love-wish prophecy. The chance of my wishes being granted by not walking the stones was zero, compared to the infinitely small chance they might if I did.
My wish was simple, perhaps naively so – to find true, honest, sustainable love.
I knew I could stumble my way between the stones and complete the task. The real challenge was running this gauntlet whilst a thrall of tourists wandered the pathway. I would bump, knock and push into people. Public decorum stopped me from such bullish behaviour. So, I found a wall to lean on and waited for a break in the crowd.
A group of uniformed teenaged girls and their school teachers entered the shrine. The teachers stopped at the stones and explained how they worked. Then, one by one the young women walked the stones, helped by their teacher or peers, eyes closed, hands out, tripping, stumbling, laughing. Observing this, an intense moment of déjà vu reminded me of theatre exercises I did during my undergraduate studies.
The only question harder to answer than “what can you do with an English degree?” is “what can you do with a Theatre degree?” The answer remains as hidden as the floor of the Tainai meguri hall, and my degree was in English and Theatre. One of my favourite parts of my theatre classes were the exercises. They provide an opportunity to warm up or hone a particular stage skill, and taught concentration, focus, collaboration, and how to listen. Perhaps most valuably, theatre exercises showed that lessons are not only learned through the mind but also through the body.
Consider the game “Grandma’s Footsteps”, also known as “Red Light, Green Light”. Someone stands at one end of a room with their eyes closed or facing the wall, and the players line up opposite. The goal is to tag “Grandma” before anyone else. But if Grandma senses someone getting close, they open their eyes or turn around to catch anyone still moving. If Grandma sees you move, you’re sent back to your start point. The lesson is for the players to focus their concentration on a single point, and, for Grandma, to tune themself to the unseen movements. You learn control, rhythm, pace and patience.
A similar game involves a ball and some space. It doesn’t have a name as far as I know, so we’ll call it “Blind Ball”. A ball is placed several meters ahead of an individual. The individual closes their eyes and tries to pick up the ball. Most people can’t do it without stopping too close or too far or veering off course, but after playing it often, one’s accuracy generally increases. The game trains a kinesthetic awareness and strengthens sense other than sight to know your place in the room. This is useful when on stage where an actor must sense outside their visual periphery.
The school girls, stumbling from one stone to the other, might as well have been playing a combination of Blind Ball and Red Light, Green Light. The stones no longer looked like just a touch-for-good-luck superstition; they were a theatre exercise.
My knowledge of Japanese religion, mythology and philosophy is limited. I also viewed the stones with a Western eye. My goal is not to colonize the meaning of the stones and divine their “true” interpretation. Rather, I want to share a unique lens for viewing the love stones and how it helped my perception of this thing that we collectively call love. While there may lie a larger, more spiritual and theological aspect to the stones, we’ll leave that subject for another day. So, if theatre exercises teach skills through performed action, the love stones therefore have a similar lesson to teach too.
German anthropologist Henrich Zimmer said, via Joseph Campbell:
‘The best things can’t be told, because they transcend thought. The second best are misunderstood because those are the thoughts that are supposed to refer to that which can’t be thought about and one gets stuck in the thoughts. The third best are what we talk about.’
If love is one of those best things in life, that makes the love stones what Zimmer refers to as those misunderstood “second best things”. Though they symbolize something transcendent, it’s easy to get lost in the symbol. For example, I initially misunderstood the love stones as superstitious charms. If we want to actually understand the lesson they teach about love, we must carefully interpret the symbols like it was a theatre game. But first, let’s define what kind of “love” I mean. C.S. Lewis’s The Four Loves will help identify the different types. Lewis writes:
‘Lovers are always talking to one another about their love; friends hardly ever about their Friendship. Lovers are normally face to face, absorbed in each other; Friends, side by side, absorbed in some common interest.’
Lewis uses geometric orientation to symbolize Eros, romantic love, and Philia, friend-love. When two entities are face-to-face, they form two poles. Subject and object; here and there; you and me. These poles naturally point in opposite orientations in order to maintain a link together. My eyes point towards you; your eyes point towards me. I love you. You love me. But if you turn towards where I face, we become side-by-side and the connection—the Eros—breaks.
We do not find the love stones in a manner to suggest Philia-love. They are separated by a distance and set at opposing ends of a pathway. Walking between them “points” one stone towards the other. Therefore, we can poetically say that the stones face each other, giving them the directional quality ascribed to Eros. The stones pertain not to any kind of love, but to romantic love.
If the love stones offer a lesson about romantic love, like a theatre game, what does that lesson teach? Why would we need a lesson in the first place?
In English we say “to take the plunge” when we want to do something suddenly and with decision. In Japanese they say “to jump off the stage at Kiyomizu”. What a coincidence — the temple that houses the love stones acts as the namesake for an expression about diving into something! But perhaps not such a coincidence — a common feature of romantic love is jumping in too hastily, an act all too familiar to me and no doubt my twice-divorced parents too. Surely, we all have “jumped off the stage” at some point. So perhaps these stones advice offer an alternative to romantic plunge-taking. If anything, they suggest some ideas that perhaps we ought to meditate on.
The first instruction from the sign above the stones offers a lesson: ‘If you walk safely from this stone to the other stone with your eyes closed. for once, your wish’ll be granted soon.’
One of the strategies to winning Grandma’s Footsteps is the blitz: you try to tag Grandma at a sprint out the gate. But it’s likely you won’t be able to freeze if Grandma turns around, making the whole attempt a guaranteed failure. With the love stones, you could rush through the crowd to the second stone with eyes closed, but you’re likely to bump into someone, hurting them or yourself. Or perhaps you would veer off course, miss the stone entirely, fall over the railing and tumble down the mountain! Symbolically, the “safely” aspect of the stones suggests that we and our romantic love should not “bump into” or interfere with others. How do we feel when we see over-gratuitous public displays of affection? We feel like their intimacy is bumping into us, disturbing our personal space. A rash confession of love only hurts the confessor.
A Japanese friend once told me about a custom in Japan. When you buy flowers on Valentine’s Day, you must hold the blossoms facing the ground and not upright for the world to see. Upright flowers show bothersome, in-your-face bragging. Making the world aware of your love, or your pursuit of it, is obnoxious to others. Romeo and Juliet offers an extreme example — the final body count includes not only the star-crossed lovers but a handful of other collateral corpses. Love should exist humble, causing minimal disturbance to the world around it.
Now, let us analyze the walking of the stones itself and what it tells us about love. The main action of walking the stones is going from one to the other with closed eyes. This signifies several things: love is a journey, love is delicate, and love is perceived without sight. [MW6]
The stones are far apart and this speaks a simple metaphor: one may not instantly touch one then the other. It takes time to go between them. The journey takes patience and a steady pace. Lust is over in an instant; love happens and perhaps requires a timely journey.
The school group helped me see the delicacy of love. When the school girls got close to the second stone, the final act of touching it was quite difficult. Bend over too fast, you fall. Reach out to the wrong space, you fall. Lunge at empty air, you fall. The last centimeters of the fifty-meter journey are the hardest. What starts as a difficult journey only gets harder the farther along one goes. Love isn’t easy, and the closer we get, the harder to lay our hands on love. Neil Young says something similar:
‘Love is a rose/but you better not pick it/It only grows if it’s on the vine/A handful of thorns and/you know you’ve missed it/You lose your love when you say the word ‘mine.”
The next lyric ‘I wanna see what’s never been seen’ segues to the next aspect of the love stones. We walk the stones blindly. Why without sight? We see what is visual, what lies on the surface. But love dwells also in the mind, the unseen part of the mind, what in ourselves we do not see. If we think of the visible world as our conscious, love lives in the invisible sub-conscious, in the unseen parks of our psyche, well beneath the well-lit world. When has anyone been capable of deciding what they love? Love hardly is a conscious decision.
By walking the stones, we perceive ourselves and our surroundings with an internal awareness, just as we judge the distance of the ball before us or Grandma senses someone nearby. Therefore, we discover love. We feel and experience it inside ourselves. In order to know love, we must turn our focus inwards and listen, sense and feel. Simple to say, hard to do. If we decide to take the challenge, we always face the possibility of failure. Love is no different. C.S. Lewis reflects:
‘To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.’
But you do not need to be alone in your pursuit of love.
‘And it is said taking advice requires you to have someone who’ll help you achieve your love.’
One can ask for help. Perhaps the most beautiful message of the love stones is we do not have to be alone in our journey. The students and their teachers helped each other walk from one stone to the other. Friends, family and teachers will help you see what you cannot, those who will help you get up if you fall. They act Virgil to your Dante, the Sam to your Frodo, the Obi-Wan to your Luke. This person will see you and your vulnerability when you cannot see yourself, assess your place in the world and the obstacles you need to overcome. While love lies between two people, it doesn’t mean someone else can’t help you face the right way.
Eventually, you get to the other side. You touch the opposite stone. I watched the students and teachers complete the walk. Like the theatre games, this was a simple lesson for a complicated idea, that love is paced, love is a risk, love is blind. Love sometimes needs a guiding hand.
Absorbing this lesson remains hard psychological and emotional work. Perhaps the stones were created to make it easier to do. How preferable to think one could heave their hopes, dreams and ambitions at the superstition of the stones. Imagine if you could do the walk, touch the stone, then the universe in its mysterious machinations would take care of the rest. But then you would ignore the torii you passed to reach this sacred place. Clinging to the superstitious purpose of the stones –– seeing as “second best things” –– forfeits their symbolic connection to the very best things, missing their wisdom entirely.
When I considered the stones at first, I misunderstood them, because love is one of those best things that transcends thought. But after watching the students and teachers, I began to understand the lesson, the symbol of a “best thing in life”. And here I write and discuss, that third-best thing, about how love stones and theatre games stand in place of the transcendental things they symbolize.
Overjoyed at their journeys’ success, the school girls moved onto the rest of their field trip. Standing there, watching the stones, I thought about asking a stranger for help, and then I didn’t feel like I needed to walk the stones any more.
About the Author
Matthew Willis is a Canadian-born writer, screenwriter, story editor and narrative designer based in Bordeaux, France. He started out as a playwright and dramaturg, became a screenwriter and story editor and has recently begun working in video game narrative design. But while the entire world cannot be fiction, Matthew indulges in inspiration he finds for essays from time to time.