April 13, 2007
by Masaki Fukushima&Mamiko Tsunai
What is Your Fortune?
Every Shinto shrine in Japan, without fail, sells omikuji. You can often see them tied to the branches of a tree or bush on the grounds of a shrine, making the plant almost appear to be blooming in white flowers. Sometimes omikuji are tied to a stand. But what are omikuji? And what is their purpose?
Omikuji are paper fortunes from a “sacred lottery,” fortunes which foretell one’s good or bad luck regarding something that one is praying about to the god of the shrine they are visiting. Japanese people love omikuji, and foreign visitors can enjoy them too, especially if they can read Japanese or have a bilingual Japanese friend read and translate their omikuji for them.
There are two methods for receiving omikuji. In one, you first shake a box containing numbered sticks. When a stick comes out through a slot, you pay the shrine attendant for the paper slip of the same number. Another method is simply to pick one from the many folded fortune papers which are in a box. The methods, which always use random chance, depend on the particular shrine. In addition, some Buddhist temples offer omikuji. In any case, your general fortune is usually written in one of seven categories:
大吉 (DAIKICHI)→ 中吉 (CHUKICHI)→ 小吉 (SHOUKICHI)→ 吉 (KICHI)→ 末吉 (SUEKICHI)→ 凶(KYOU)→ 大凶 (DAIKYOU).
The character 吉 (kichi) means good fortune and 凶 (kyou) means bad fortune or curse. 大 (dai) means big or great. Therefore 大吉 is the best fortune, and 大凶 is the worst. In addition, omikuji foretell in detail one’s individual fortune in such matters as money, a trip, health, an expected visitor, or something you are searching for.
Because the deity that is enshrined in each place of worship is different, the contents written in the omikuji slip will vary greatly from one place to the next. For example, the god of the marriage is enshrined in Jishu Jinja Shrine, so one’s fortune in love and the marriage is written on the paper slip.
Since the words printed on the omikuji are considered a sacred message from the deity, you should take them home to advise you, without regard to the good or bad luck of the fortune which you drew. However, there is a custom in Japan of tying the paper slip to an appointed place without taking it home. If you drew a good luck fortune, it will be achieved and if you drew bad luck, it’s believed that your wish that it be turned into good luck is granted through this act.
Even if you are impatient, and want to have your fortune told once again because you are not satisfied with the result of your omikuji, it is not such a good idea to draw one again immediately. You must wait at least for two hours. Actually, you had better wait about two weeks if possible.
In addition to omikuji, Japanese amulets such as omamori (お守り) and plaques called ema (絵馬) are sold at shrines and some temples.
The Japanese verb mamoru means “to protect.” People make wishes on omamori hoping to become able to get their heart’s desire and/or to protect themselves or their loved ones from misfortune. There are various kinds of these amulets in every Shinto shrine and in some Buddhist temples. For example, there are talismans for success in love relationships, easy delivery of a baby, good health, safety in traffic, protection from fire, good luck in business and for passing an exam. Therefore you have to purchase the ones which answer your purposes. To receive their grace, it is necessary to carry about the purchased omamori or to keep it somewhere appropriate (home, car, etc.). And it is important to think that “the god always watches.” In addition, the validity of the divine favor of a lucky charm is one year as a general rule. It is customary return to the shrine where you purchased the omamori with a feeling of thanks when one year has passed if a wish has been accomplished.
Ema are small wooden tablets or plaques on which we write a wish or prayer to the deity. The name combines the character 絵 (e )which means “picture” with 馬 (uma) which means “horse,” and many ema are painted with votive pictures of horses (or other animals). This is because in old Japan real horses were often given to shrines by rich people in exchange for blessings or wishes granted.
You write your name and wish in the blank space and backside of the ema. You may generally write any wish, though the specific wish or prayer often relates to the god who is enshrined in each shrine. Then the finished plaque is tied with string to a kind of framework and displayed there. Look closely at these and you may well find a few written in English by overseas visitors to Japan.
Even if you believe in another religion, the Shinto gods in Japan will deal with you equally. As you have learned in this article, omikuji, omamori and ema can all be enjoyed by foreign visitors. Recently there are some omamori which are even used as necklaces. And nowadays, some of these charms are worn like fashion accessories. We’re sure that you will make yourselves and others happy if you come in Kyoto and buy them as souvenirs of your visit. May your wishes also come true!