Journey to the temple of love

The verandah at the Kiyomizu temple in Kyoto was built without railings, and jumping off it was...

The verandah at the Kiyomizu temple in Kyoto was built without railings, and jumping off it was considered a test of bravery that would grant a wish to whoever survived the 13-metre drop. Kiyomizu is a World Heritage site. (Robin Robinson/QMI Agency)

ROBIN ROBINSON, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 3:01 PM ET

KYOTO, JAPAN -- Despite unlimited opportunities to connect through social networking and text messaging, TV commercials for computer dating services suggest that romance can be surprisingly elusive for singles in 2010. But a recent visit to Japan, has convinced me that Canadians may be looking for love in all the wrong places.

Even for tech-savvy Japanese teenagers, the path to love can still be a time honoured low-tech journey that starts at the ancient Jishu Shrine in Higashiyama, a district of Kyoto. Built by a shogun in 1633, the shrine has been attracting the lovelorn up through its gate ever since.

Legions of unattached Japanese make pilgrimages to the home of Okuninushi-no Mikoto -- the god of love, matchmaking and marriage.

SHUT THEIR EYES

But finding true love is not without risk, says guide Mark Amano. Visitors who appeal to the love god for help must first shut their eyes and navigate the 10-metre distance between two "love fortune-telling" stones.

Often these romantic pilgrims -- mainly teenagers and young women -- are guided on their journey by high-spirited friends shouting, "Left, right, be careful, forward, watch out, stop!"

It is said those who make it safely from stone to stone without falling or straying from the path will see their love realized.

Admission to the shrine is free but visitors can buy love amulets to help seal the deal. And when it comes to affairs of the heart, who couldn't use a little help from a higher power?

Does it work? While there are no guarantees, a notice board in front of the shrine is covered with messages from happy couples around the world -- including some from Canada -- who believe "Japan's cupid" intervened on their behalf, Amano says.

Love may be a compelling reason to make a day trip to Higashiyama but it is not the only one. This former capital city was once the heart of Japanese culture and politics.

During its 1,100-years as the seat of government, it evolved into a sprawling but beautiful metropolis, home to Imperial palaces and villas, gardens and teahouses, and some 1,300 Buddhist temples and almost 400 Shinto shrines. No less than 17 Unesco World Heritage sites are found within the Kyoto prefecture.

For tourists, that's a lot of decision making about what to do. One could fill weeks -- maybe months -- seeing nothing but temples and shrines but in Higashiyama visitors can spend a leisurely day enjoying different kinds of attractions in a pedestrian-friendly area.

Jishu Shrine is tucked right behind the commanding Kiyomizu -- or Pure Water -- temple, a World Heritage site founded in the eighth century and rebuilt in 1633. It's a must-see.

GIANT SUN DECK

The temple's main hall, which was built entirely without nails, juts out from the hillside like a giant sun deck. The views over the city are magnificent, especially in the fall when the Japanese maples turn brilliant red, and in the spring when the cherry blossoms are in bloom.

Jumping off the verandah was once a test of bravery. It was believed those who survived the 13-metre fall would be granted their wish, Amano says, adding that many who took the challenge plunged to their death, and others were horribly crippled. The practice is now outlawed.

Right below the main hall is the Otawa waterfall, where visitors queue up to catch and drink the pure spring waters tumbling down the hillside. These are believed to have therapeutic properties and confer wisdom, health and long life, Amano says.

COBBLED STREETS

After the temple visit, meander along nearby Sannenzaka St. and the hodge-podge of narrow lanes that branch off of it. These cobbled streets lead past old wooden houses, shops selling traditional Japanese goods such as lacquerware and decorative paper, and excellent small restaurants, where you can get a steaming bowl of noodles and pot of green tea for under $10.

Being married, I didn't take the journey between the fortune-telling stones at Jishu shrine but I fell in love anyway -- with the colourful, beautiful pottery heaped up on tables outside shops along the rustic backstreets. I couldn't resist buying a few plates to take home. (I cursed their weight in my hand luggage but was happy I made the effort.)

On a pleasant day, the area takes on a carnival atmosphere and it's not uncommon to see women strolling about in beautifully patterned kimonos. Amano says temples and shrines sometimes offer discounts on admission to encourage people to wear traditional dress.


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