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Sunday, Jan. 25, 2009

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Mass love: At Tokyo Daijingu, wooden prayer plaques, or ema, carry wishes for good fortune and enduring love. KIT NAGAMURA

BACKSTREET STORIES

A west side love story

Tokyo Daijingu is the place to pray at if you're looking for romance


With Valentine's Day approaching, Tokyo's lovers dust off chocolate-tempering pots, scope out sweet shops and reserve bouquets of roses. Of course, savvy romantics know a midwinter stroll along a back street, with requisite snuggling for warmth, works nearly as well to stoke affection as edible or olfactory aphrodisiacs. Better still if the chosen route includes the "Shrine of Love."

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An amorous tomcat waiting for attention

OK, it's not really called that. Tokyo Daijingu is its actual name, and there's a lot in a name; dai means "grand," and jingu indicates a shrine of especially high status, with Imperial connections. In the top echelon with the likes of the uberfamous Meiji Shrine, Daijingu is known as the place in Tokyo to pray for success in love and relationships. I head there strictly in the name of research, of course.

I emerge from Exit 4 at Iidabashi Station, south of the Imperial Palace moat and across the JR tracks from the trendy cafe and restaurant slopes of Kagurazaka, into an atmosphere gritty from massive skyscraper-construction sites. A few small homes and businesses tremble in the dusty shadows, and fast-food chains dominate this stretch of Mejiro Avenue. It's a dire start to a romantic journey, and my inner Cupid quails.

Luckily, once I veer south into the neighborhood of Fujimi, I happen upon tiny floral-design shop Karakuri, where heart-shaped decorations let me know I'm headed in the right direction. Pausing to breathe in the fragrance of Karakuri's tiny potted plum trees, I notice on a corner a home in Taisho Era (1912-1926) style and with an antique ceramic address plate.

Several steps uphill, I pop into Tokyo Paris Shokudo, a no-frills French bistro, because, according to George Bernard Shaw, "No love is more sincere than the love of food."

"My dad opened this place to offer people inexpensive, simple French cooking," says 36-year-old Kyogo Tokuda, setting before me a thick ceramic plate of roast pork draped over lentils and beans. "These are his recipes, which we've used for 19 years," he says, adding that his father now manages another restaurant one station away, in Yotsuya. I feel a little like the snobbish food critic Anton Ego in the movie "Ratatouille," surprised by the humble fare, then pleased by the slightly zingy sauce.

I comment on the restaurant's pint-size green tables and green chairs, surrounded by green walls. "Green is my dad's favorite color, but French restaurants should be red, I think," says Tokuda.

I ask him whether Tokyo Daijingu attracts lovers to his bistro.

"Well, perhaps," he says, "but a lot of single guys from the nearby Michelin Tire Company eat here."

I make a note of that, pay the bargain bill (¥1,200 for a lunch set with coffee and dessert), and take off.

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Staffer Emi Enomoto at French bookstore Librairie Omeisha
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A lovely old home hints at the neighborhood's former elegance
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Two young women praying at Tokyo Daijingu. KIT NAGAMURA PHOTOS

Heading further uphill, I pop into a wee bookstore that looks as if it was plucked from the Left Bank in Paris. Librairie Omeisha sells publications exclusively in the celebrated language of love: French. The place has the cozy, worn-in feel of a well-established shop. "We opened in 1947 in Yotsuya and moved here in 1973," confirms employee Emi Enomoto, standing below an image of a character from one of their best-selling titles, "Le Petit Prince" by French aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupery. The book is one of the world's most widely translated, partly because it contains one of the most touching explorations of love ever written.

"We also sell a lot of airy pottay," Enomoto tells me. Airy pottay? It takes a minute, but as my French comes back to me, I finally get it: "Harry Potter." With a quick au revoir, I'm off again.

Nearing Tokyo Daijingu, I anticipate a tranquil afternoon hour cruising the grounds and perhaps buying a talisman or two, but, oddly, the roads grow increasingly glutted with people. Then, I find policemen urging the crowd into long lines, four abreast. There must be more than a thousand people, I realize, slightly alarmed. At first, judging from the throng of predominantly young perfumed women in boots, and puffy jackets, I guess there's a rock concert or huge sale nearby. Wrong. They're all headed for the shrine.

The senior priest of Tokyo Daijingu, 51-year-old Yoshiyuki Karamatsu, kindly agrees to meet with me, though his cell phone (ironic ring tone set to Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer") reminds us insistently that he's in high demand right now. "It's not always quite this crowded," he laughs, "but for the first two weeks of each new year, we see more than a thousand visitors a day."

Karamatsu explains that Daijingu was originally built in 1880 next to the Imperial Hotel location, where it was known as Hibiya Daijingu until fires from the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake razed the wooden structure.

Enshrining many of the same deities as the Grand Shrine of Ise in Mie Prefecture — chief among them sun goddess Amaterasu, the Imperial family's ancestral deity — Daijingu also enshrines kami (gods) of creation and growth, two elements essential to a solid marriage. In fact, in 1900, when the Meiji Emperor's son, Crown Prince Yoshihito, married in a hall sacred to Amaterasu, this sparked widespread interest in shizen kekkonshiki (Shinto-style wedding ceremonies). The basic liturgy of today's Shinto marriage ceremony was formalized at Daijingu, just over a century ago.

Midori Matsuda and Satomi Shimizu, both in their early 30s, have been queuing for an hour. "I'm going to pray this boy I like will marry me," Midori says, to Satomi's amusement. Both are likely to purchase Daijingu's enmusubi, or good-luck charms, to coax out true and lasting love. They happen on painted ema (wooden prayer plaques) to be hung at the shrine; or in pairs, with one to keep and the other to give, or sneak, into your loved one's possession.

Of course, I buy a pair.

As I head up yet another slope in search of a view of Mount Fuji that this area's name, Fujimi, promises, I spy a lone old tomcat in the sun and stop to pet him, because I recall that Daijingu is also sacred to the kamimusubi no kami, or the god who ties all things together.

I climb Nigohan Slope, between the Lycee Franco-Japonais de Tokyo, a French elementary school, and Catholic elementary school Gyosei Gakuen's playing field, watched over by a statue of the Madonna and Child. This slope, depending on whom one consults, was either named for the percentage of Mount Nikko visible from the top during the Edo Period (1603-1867), or for the idea that the slope is so steep that someone downing one cup of sake and running to the summit will feel as drunk as having guzzled two and a half cups. I'm sobered by the fact it's no longer possible to see either Mount Fuji or Nikko from this vantage point due to construction work.

However, I do find the official residence of the Philippine Ambassador to Japan, an estate purchased by former Philippine President Jose P. Laurel. The home was built in 1934 on land once owned by Baron Zenjiro Yasuda (1838-1921), founder of a powerful zaibatsu (conglomerate), donor of Tokyo University's Yasuda Hall and Yoko Ono's great-grandfather. Though rumored to be up for sale, and not open to the public, the estate's vast garden can be glimpsed — ah, the allure of bare limbs! — from the slope leading down to Mejiro Avenue.

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Here, I follow the mysterious sound of rushing water to its source: the artificial falls outside Hotel Grand Palace. Though the hotel itself is a beige box, the staff couldn't be more welcoming. Guest Relations Manager Said Sato, born in Casablanca, Morocco, proves infinitely more sociable than Humphrey Bogart, and tells me about a Valentine's Day special for guests. "We'll offer champagne and gifts for ladies," he tells me. What kind of gifts, I ask. "Well, I'm 47," he admits, "so I let the younger staff vote on it."

If an overnight stay is premature, woo your sweetie at the original Le Petit Tonneau — precursor to several branches — across the street. The ambience is fantastically French, lively and unabashedly risque, with special menu plans for Valentine's Day. Waiter Mathias Warin, 26, is dismayed when I say that I've just come from the crowds at Daijingu. "I cannot believe I forgot to go there today!" he says. "I missed a big chance. We are all single guys here, and we just love to love women."

Bring it on, boys.



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