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The Hidden Magic of the Five-Yen Coin: A Tale of Serendipity in Japan

Updated: Apr 30

A small copper-colored coin speeds through the air, crashing against a sheer rock wall, and drops to the water below. Sinking to the bottom, it comes to rest on a riverbed overrun by loose change. This unassuming coin, a five-yen piece, or go en dama holds within it the enchanting tales of Japan's destiny and the serendipitous moments it brings to life.


The location is Geibikei Gorge in Northern Japan’s unspoiled Tohoku region. A boat trip downstream takes you past a small temple hidden within a cave. The surrounding waters are home to amasses of five-yen coins that represent the hopes and dreams of many.


Boat ride in the Geibikei Gorge in the Tohoku region
Boat ride in the Geibikei Gorge in the Tohoku region

The Mystery of the Five-Yen Coin


The five-yen coin, or "go-en dama" in Japanese, is no ordinary currency. Its significance lies beyond its size and shape; it's a powerful symbol of destiny and chance. Japanese culture has long embraced the belief that making a wish with a go-en coin can bring about a fortunate turn of events.


This tradition is deeply rooted in the unique linguistic landscape of Japan, where words may sound the same when spoken but carry distinct meanings on paper. Go-en in Japanese has the same pronunciation as the word for destiny, or fortuitous encounters.


At the heart of this tradition lies the connection between the go-en coin and destiny, a belief that has touched countless lives and dreams. It is no surprise that, when you visit temples and shrines across the archipelago, the five-yen piece is the coin of choice for making wishes.


The Power of Serendipity


This belief in fortune is more than just a tradition; it's a testament to the remarkable way the Japanese culture intertwines everyday life with destiny. The ritual of making a wish at a Shinto Shrine involves precise steps:

  1. Throw a coin (preferably a five-yen coin) into the donation box in front of the main hall.

  2. Bow twice, deeply, with your hands by your sides.

  3. Clap your hands together, twice, trying to create a powerful sound. After the second clap, hold your hands together at your chest and make your wish.

  4. After making your wish, bow a final time.

This practice encapsulates the essence of Japan's serendipity, where belief and action harmonize to shape destinies.


The Japanese 5 yen coin, featuring the iconic hole in the center.
The Japanese 5 yen coin, featuring the iconic hole in the center.

A Personal Journey


I credit the five-yen coin for my lucky admission to a seemingly impossible dream. At sixteen, I came to Japan for the first time. My host family made me feel like an insider as they guided me around their city, educated me in Japanese cultural etiquette, and answered my endless questions and curiosities. I was quickly smitten by Japan. I decided that Tokyo was the place I’d like to spend my university years and badgered my host parents to visit the capital’s best educational institutions during my stay.


As fate would have it, I discovered my dream school, offering an intensive Japanese Studies Undergraduate Program. Our journey led us to the neighboring Nezu Shrine, where vibrant azaleas adorned the hillside like flowering fireworks, and a festive atmosphere filled the air. As we entered the main hall, my host father instructed me to take out my wallet and asked if I had a five-yen coin. I nodded, feeling the cool copper between my fingers, and pulled out the coin without question.


An offering box at a shrine in Beppu
An offering box at a shrine in Beppu

He then shared the ancient custom of making a wish at a Shinto Shrine, a practice that would unknowingly set the stage for the fulfillment of my dreams. The next year was filled with hard work and determination as I labored over application essays and exams.


As you may have guessed, I was admitted to my dream university, which would become the cornerstone of my journey and the gateway to my enduring relationship with Japan.


Conclusion


The story of the five-yen coin in Japan is a testament to the power of serendipity, destiny, and the remarkable traditions that shape the lives of those who embrace them. As I look forward to returning to Geibikei Gorge, where countless five-yen coins sparkle beneath the surface, I'm reminded that dreams, like the coins themselves, have a way of coming to life when touched by a bit of magic.


Untold Japan invites you to explore the hidden treasures, customs, and culture of this enchanting land, where the allure of "go-en" continues to weave its spell on those who embark on this remarkable journey. Enquire now to start planning your visit to Japan.

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