TOKYO (Reuters Life!) - Rie Suzuki has exhausted most earthly means to find Mr. Right, so now she, and dozens of singles in Japan where marriage has recently gone out of fashion, are turning to the gods for help.
Forty-year-old Suzuki was one of 14 women and 14 men gathered on a recent Saturday at Imado shrine in Tokyo, which honors Japan's indigenous Shinto gods of marriage. Participants had varied backgrounds, but one common goal -- to find a partner.
"We said it's up to the gods now. If we go on as we have, we probably won't ever meet anyone," said Suzuki, who was attending the event that combines prayer with speed-dating.
With Japan's economy plunged deep into recession, many women are taking a renewed interest in marriage and the economic stability it could provide, and are actively seeking a partner through "konkatsu" or spouse-hunting activities, experts say.
Such activities range from surfing dating websites to participating in a grass-mowing event for singles, and Imado shrine's two-hour, 6,000 yen ($63) event is also on some marriage-hunters' list.
"This is a shrine known for marriage and many men and women seeking a good match come here," said Tomoe Ichino, a 32-year-old priest at the shrine who with her sister Kana runs the matchmaking event for which over 1,000 people have registered.
"I would see a woman buying a good luck charm, then a man doing the same thing 10 minutes later. Then I started to think that maybe they could have ended up together if they had met. So we're trying to coordinate a time when they can meet."
The participants, many in their 30s and 40s, first solemnly pray to the gods by clapping their hands and bowing their heads.
Then they move to a room where men and women sit across from each other at a table, chatting as priests watch with stopwatches in hand to make sure they switch partners every four minutes.
While women tend to be more interested in "konkatsu," some men are also keen to take part in matchmaking activities.
"I am just going back and forth between my office and my house and there is no chance to meet anyone," said Shinichi Kanno, a 37-year-old working for a medical equipment company.
"Guys are also doing "konkatsu" these days. I have many unmarried friends and I want to tell them about this event."
Many participants start out shy but gradually open up, some with the encouragement of priests. At the end, they all exchange phone numbers and email addresses.
"It was more fun then I thought it'd be," said Tomonori Iida, a 37-year-old working for a gift company. "I've exchanged names and phone numbers with a couple of people. I hope I can get in touch with them and start as friends."
Increased economic clout of women and changing social attitudes toward marriage, no longer seen as de rigueur for either gender, have kept an increasing number of Japanese in their 20s and 30s single.
Government statistics show nearly two-thirds of women under the age of 34 are unmarried, while some 3,800 firms in Japan offer match-making services.
Priests at Imado shrine don't know of any couples who have tied the knot after meeting at any of the 18 match-making sessions held so far, but say at least eight couples started dating and even more became friends.
"There are many people who do not visit shrines. Some say it's their first time praying, so this is also good for our shrine," said Kana Ichino, the 31-year-old priest.
"I'm sure the gods are happy about this, too."
Editing by Linda Sieg and Miral Fahmy