Not for the first time in my life, I am trying to read a woman’s thoughts. Clad in a colorful Kimono gown, the young Japanese lady is saying something beneath her breath as she bows her head and gently rings a bell inside Kyoto’s Jishu-Jinja Shrine of the city’s popular Kiyomizu-dera Temple. What is she asking for, I wonder as she prays, love and happiness or for something far more sinister? This may seem needlessly skeptical, but not in this place.
Famed as Japan’s most beautiful city, Kyoto has long hidden a grim, paranormal side: temples with corners for so-called black magic. Want to place a curse on an estranged lover? Shower bad luck on an enemy? Jinx an opposition business? Then head to the Kyoto temples known for their links with the supernatural. You can even hire local shamans who specialize in placing curses on people, places, and things.
Japan is renowned for its order and politeness. Those who know the country well, however, can recognize the hidden bleak elements. Kyoto is ground zero for the culture of cursing, with Jishu-Jinja Shrine one of its key sites. That’s not to suggest this shrine exists purely for nefarious purposes; on the contrary, it is a place where most people come to pray for positive outcomes, particularly in regards to romance.
The shrine sells small wooden plaques which promise to help the purchaser “bind your love tightly” or “deepen your relationship.” There are also boards from which hang hundreds of other simpler plaques on which people have written personalized wishes of success, health, and devotion for themselves and loved ones. The chief priest of the shrine prays so that these wishes will be granted on the first Sunday of every month. But as with Inyo, the Japanese name for the Yin Yang symbol, where there is light there is dark.
Among the happy crowds who visit the temple looking for love are more somber individuals seeking to beset someone or something with negative energy. Less than a meter away from the board of upbeat plaques is a sign which reveals this darker purpose. It is dedicated to Okage Myojin. The plaque explains that this god answers any prayer, no matter how sinful, and is particularly popular with Japanese women. For hundreds of years, women have visited this spot and nailed a straw doll on one of its cedar trees to place a curse on a love rival.
Jishu-Jinju Shrine is hidden at the rear of the sprawling grounds of Kiyomizu-dera Temple, one of Kyoto’s biggest attractions. On the day I visited, it was packed with tourists. But very few of them explored this deep into the Buddhist complex, and of those who did few were familiar with the shrine’s dark side.
About one kilometer away from Jishu-Jinju is the strange 1,400-year-old Yasui Konpiragu Shrine. A Japanese woman dressed in a business suit is on her hands and knees crawling through a narrow passage which has been carved through the middle of a large stone. This three-meter wide rock is adorned by thousands of pieces of paper inscribed with wishes. Legend states that by crawling through the passage a person can ensure the prayer they wrote out and attached to the rock is granted.
Those who read the prayers will find them to be innocent. Almost all are penned by women with their names attached. They are prayers for lasting affection and loyalty from a present or future partner. But many other wishes have to be removed by the shrine’s chief priest because they are too hateful, requesting hefty misfortune.
“We remove ones that are too hideous,” chief priest Hajime Torii told the Kyoto Shimbun newspaper last year. “We recommend people stay away from any form of negativity that may interfere with their happiness.”
Kifune shrine and Kitano Tenmangu shrine in northern Kyoto are similarly hotspots for curses, with the former site home to a god of love. A mere 200 meters from Yasui Konpiragu things get even more mystical at Rokudo Chinno-ji Temple. To the superstitious residents of Kyoto, this has long been considered a path to the underworld.
During Japan’s Heian Period (794 to 1185), the site of this temple was adjacent to a large open air burial site, where dead bodies would be left to be devoured by the animals and the elements. This led to a superstition developing that the area was a blurred border between the living and the dead, between life and the afterlife. The entrance to the temple is seen as a spiritual intersection. It is where souls diverge on their journeys, be it heaven or hell or somewhere in between. Many locals still visit the temple after the death of a loved one to ask their spirit be sent in the right direction.
These darker spiritual activities are rare, as negative energy is frowned upon in most places of worship. Also, while they’re making these prayers, there is every chance that elsewhere across this ancient city someone else is asking heavenly powers to do them a far bleaker favor.