“Bad Fortune!” The headline practically shouted at me from the tiny scroll. I handed the paper to Kay. “Well, that figures,” I said glumly. The English letters swam in front of my eyes, as indecipherable as the Japanese characters on the scroll’s flip side.
I was reeling from jet lag and marathon sightseeing in Tokyo. This was my first foray into the wider world as a visually impaired person. Recent retina damage had left me with a permanent blind spot.
A voracious reader, I now found myself unable to make sense of words on a page. The spot obscured just enough of my vision to keep me off balance. Every morning I hoped it would be gone, but its purple glow lodged beside my nose like a party guest not taking the hint that it was time to leave.
I was disoriented from the moment we landed in Tokyo, immersed in an environment where I couldn’t understand the spoken language or make a guess at any of the written words. Unlike Spanish, French or German, there were no words that sounded even vaguely familiar.
The fourth day of our trans-Pacific journey, we visited Asakusa, an ancient Buddhist temple and its surrounding neighborhood, preserved as a living museum of old Japan in the center of Tokyo’s futuristic megalopolis. We entered through massive red, black and gold temple gates adorned with carvings of dragons and flowers, and melted into the tourist swarm in search of cultural experiences.
The concept of luck, or good fortune, is an integral part of the Japanese belief system. Numbers, symbols and rituals are honored today as they were centuries ago. After lighting a candle at the temple, we drank water from a fountain that had been blessed by monks. Ike, our host, explained that it was customary to pray for healing before taking a drink. Feeling like a hypocritical Western secularist, I prayed for restored eyesight.
Next, we visited a sand-filled vessel pierced with dozens of burning sticks of incense. “People direct the smoke to the place they want good luck,” Ike said, “See, some people push the smoke to their pockets because they want more money. Students direct it at their heads before an exam.” I thought, “When in Rome …” (or Tokyo) and waved smoke into my left eye and hoped for the best.
Finally, we bought tokens that could be exchanged for fortune scrolls housed in tiny drawers. “Read me the rest of it,” I said.
“Bad time to travel.” Too late! “Watch out for betrayal.” My body had already betrayed me. “Career is at a low point.” It will be if I can’t read anymore!
The Japanese believe that you can change your bad fortune. A wire rack by the fortune booth was festooned with hundreds of twists of paper. Ike said, “They put their bad fortune there so the wind can carry it away.” I twisted my fortune onto the wire and secretly hoped for a miracle.
At the end of our trip, I understood more Japanese than I ever expected to and could suss out what was going on by interpreting symbols and photos. I had adapted to the confusing environment out of necessity.
Maybe the Japanese belief in changing fortunes helped me then, because over the next two years I found ways to adapt to my visual impairment. I can read pretty well now, and no longer hope for a miracle to make the blind spot vanish.
My bad fortune did not fly away that day in Tokyo, but I started the slow work of changing it.