“Some men dream of fortunes, others dream of cookies,” goes an old saying from a fortune cookie. As for my good friend Dale, who has had a a mean case of winter malaise since he broke up with his girlfriend, he is still dreaming of finding a wife. Thus, on a January morning we set out for Kyoto and Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine, where we hope a nearby shop that makes fortune cookies will tell Dale his odds in love. He is looking for a boost of morale with an oracle such as “Soon a visitor shall delight you;” but, then, in his current mood he may settle for “All is not yet lost.”
Chinese fortune cookies are really from Japan — no kidding. The truth has been leaked for years, most recently in the blockbuster “Iron Man 3,” where the nefarious baddie Mandarin slams the un-Chinese cookie as “hollow and full of lies” — yet the fact still meets with disbelief. Kudos to the Chinese for the consummate cultural appropriation! No one in China has heard of the famous dessert, yet while its origins remain disputed among immigrant groups in America, according to journalist Jennifer 8. Lee’s book “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles,” the custom of serving the “sweet surprise” as dessert was started by the Japanese.
The cookie’s American debut was likely in 1914. Made by the San Francisco bakery Benkyodo, it was first introduced by “baron” Makoto Hagiwara, a Japanese immigrant who ran the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park. By the 1920s, other Japanese bakeries had adapted the recipe, supplying Chinese restaurants in California that were owned by Japanese immigrants.
So how did the fortune cookie become Chinese? The switch occurred likely during World War II, when on the West Coast all people of Japanese ancestry were sent to interment camps. Japanese bakeries in California were closed, leaving production to Chinese immigrants who adopted the cookie for themselves. After the war, for reasons unknown, the Japanese never reclaimed their creation.
Long before all of this, however, fortune cookies appeared in Japan. Known here as tsujiura senbei (fortune crackers) or omikuji senbei (written fortune crackers), they stem from the temple tradition of written fortunes and were first referenced in the mid-1800s. The writer Shunsui Tamenga (circa. 1830-44) mentions crackers with fortunes inside in the book “Haru no Wakakusa” (“Spring Grass”), and a woodblock print of a man baking them dates back to 1878.
Another link to Japan is the Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine, our destination. Located in the Fushimi district of Kyoto, the shrine is adjoined by small family bakeries that have made folkcraft cookies for decades. Reportedly, this is the birthplace of the fortune cookie, and to learn what Dale’s future in Japan has in store, a clue from the source seems the most reliable.
We arrive in Kyoto late on a Tuesday night. It has been alleged that Kyotoites are a little stuck up, and indeed, as we leave the station, our first contact is true to form.
“A smile is your passport into the hearts of others,” goes an old saying from a fortune cookie; however, the man whom Dale asks for directions seems against any such travel.
Installed at a bar later on, we discuss our careers and our favorite writers, until Dale lets me in on his recent exploits. He is in his late 30s and, unusual for a Western man in Asia, has started casual encounters with a Japanese lady in her 50s. Though intrigued, I point out that Dale’s search for a wife may not be advanced by casual encounters.
“I made it perfectly clear it was casual,” he says between sips of Jameson whiskey. “She was fine, but now I can tell she is getting serious. But I made it perfectly clear.”
“Did you have breakfast together?” I ask. “Because if you did, she is doomed. The poor gal has fallen in love.”
“She sneezes a lot,” muses Dale, apropos of nothing. Then after a pause he adds, looking into his Jameson, “but of course sneezing is okay.”
The next morning, slightly hung over, we set out for the Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine. Inari is the god of rice and the patron of business, invoked at countless locations all over the country. What makes this particular shrine stand out is the two statues of foxes in front of it, as well as the row of torii gates winding up an adjoining mountain. Each of the torii in the endless procession was donated by a Japanese business, and the magic vermilion tunnel has featured in Japanese movies and the American production “Memoirs of a Geisha.”
In the approach to the shrine, we find the Souhonke Inariya bakery tucked in between souvenir shops and food stalls. And right up front, perched humbly between other crackers, is the genuine article — the Japanese tsujiura senbei, the mother of all fortune cookies.
Although bigger and darker than the American version, it is clearly the same design, with a fortune slip tucked inside. The taste, however, is different. Instead of vanilla and butter, tsujiura senbei are made with miso and sesame, and less sugar. In essence, it’s a Japanese rice cracker.
The bakery has been run by the same family for three generations, but the local tradition of making cookies predates them. The store manager tells us how decades ago, a lot of Japanese candy came with fortunes inside, and there is at least one more shop — the Hogyokudo bakery down the street — that still sells them. We ask the manger if it bothers him that the Chinese get all credit for his cookie.
“We are proud that the cookies are famous,” he replies modestly, but then adds with a feisty grin, “Most people are surprised to see fortune cookies in our store. But then they realize these are better.”
Moving along, we pass the two foxes in front of the shrine, each one with a key in its mouth. We enter the torii path that leads up to the inner shrine, a two-hour walk looping back through the cedar forest, passing graveyards and altars and the ubiquitous statues of foxes. We finally rest at a shaded pond, where old moss-covered graves adorn the shoreside like flowers.
Eaten by curiosity, we crack our cookies and check out the fortunes. They’re not the cheerily vague prophecies you get in the West, but a detailed breakdown of health, work and family, ranked from “poor” to “excellent” in Chinese characters we have never seen. Oh well — so much then for Dale’s future.
On our way back down the mountain, our breath steaming in the crisp January air, Dale suddenly stops and says, “About that lady I’ve been seeing. What if casual is really okay for her?”
“Then you got a winner — a freethinking cougar,” I reply. “But don’t you keep saying you are looking for a wife?”
As we pilgrimage under the torii that meander across the mountain, I think of how wars disrupt lives and cultures forever, and how sweet surprises and casual encounters may or may not be what they seem to be, and then I remember an old saying from a San Francisco fortune cookie: “It is now, and in this world, that we must live.”
Smart cookie indeed, I muse, trailing Dale.
Getting there: The Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine is at the JR Nara Line Inari Station, a five-minute ride from Kyoto Station, and within walking distance of the Fushimi Inari Station of the Keihan Electric Railway Main Line.