Japanese Lucky Charms in Shrines and Temples

The most popular Japanese lucky charms

If you have been in Japan, you have probably visited some temple or shrine (or several) and you will have seen that they sold different objects that you may not know what they meant. They are lucky charms. In this article we‘re going explain some of them!

But first let’s start by explaining the difference between a temple and a shrine, since they’re not the same. In Japan two religions coexist: Shintoism and Buddhism. Shintoism is the religion of Japan and doesn’t exist in any other country. Buddhism came from China.

Most Japanese follow both religions. In fact, it’s often said that a Japanese is born Shinto and dies Buddhist, since at birth a Shinto rite is performed but the funeral rite is Buddhist.

This may be strange for foreigners, but, although they’re often called “religion” for simplicity, in fact, Shintoism and Buddhism aren’t religions themselves. Shinto celebrates life, and sees death as something ugly, and that is why when Buddhism came to Japan covered that part. But back to what interests us now, the temples are Buddhist and the shrines are Shinto. For example, in Tokio, Meiji Jingū (明治神宮) is a shrine and Sensoji(浅草寺) is a temple. In Kioto, the famous Kinkakuji (金閣寺) is a temple and Fushimi Inari is a shrine.

The easiest way to recognize it’s usually because of the shrines have a torii at the entrance. Although the most popular is typical in red color, there are different types of torii, such as wood or stone.

As Buddhism and Shinto have been in Japan since ancient times, they share some customs, such as some lucky charms or amulets.

Ema

Ema (絵馬) are traditional small wooden plaques in which you write your wishes in order for the Gods to read them. Ema literally means “drawn horse” or “painting of a horse”(絵 is painting or drawing and 馬 is horse). Formerly, during the Nara period (710-784), horses were seen as the “vehicles of gods” so when people wanted to make a wish in a shrine they donate them a horse as an offering to the Gods. Then the Gods would be more likely to listen to their prayers and fulfill wishes.

But of course, horses were expensive and only a few people could do that (aristocracy, samurais,etc). Then people who couldn’t afford it started using horse figures made of wood, clay or paper instead. Over time they replaced the horse figures for the small wooden plaques. During the Muromachi period (1336-1573) some shrines started to display other things instead the horses and currently each shrine has its own personalized drawing with something characteristic of that sanctuary. Some even have different forms, such as fox or torii

Omamori

Omamori

Omamori (お守り) are one of the most popular Japanese amulets or talismans that provide various forms of luck protection. Mamori means protection or protect, and the ‘o’ is a honorable prefix. Omamori are said to contain busshin (spiritual offshoots) in a Shinto context or kesshin (manifestations) in a Buddhist context, and are made sacred in a ritual . Originally were made from paper or wood, but nowadays are small brocade bags that contain a prayer inside. They are available in temples and shrines, regardless of one’s religious affiliation and are a very popular gift as physical form of well-wishing. You can even buy one to protect your pet!

pet omamori

Although they’re originally from temples and shrines, they have become so popular that it’s easy to see “fake” Omamoris in souvenir and gift shops, with famous characters or anime, as Hello Kitty, Rilakuma or One Piece.

But you can found real anime Ema and Omamori in Kanda Myojin Shrine next to Akihabara.

Omikuji

Omikuji

Omikuji (御御籤, おみくじ) are strips of paper that predict our fortune and future. Do you want to know your fate? We are going to explain you how to do it!

First, you have to pay a small fee (usually about 100 to 300 yen). You can find a coin box near the omikuji place. Just put the coins inside this box by yourself. Next step: shake a cylinder wood box (relatively heavy) that have numbered long and thin sticks inside (they’re called mikuji-bo). After shaking it for a few seconds, a stick comes out from the box. Read the number and place the stick back in the box. Then take a paper from the drawer with your number and discover your fortune!

Omikuji fortunes are divided into different levels of luck and misfortune:

大吉 Daikichi :Excellent luck

吉 Kichi:Good luck

中吉 Chukchi:Middle luck

小吉 Shokichi:A little luck

末吉 Suekichi: Future luck

凶 Kyo:Bad luck

omikuji

This is the traditional way to get the omikuji, but there are also different ways to receive your omikuji. For example, in some temples and shrines comes in the mascot of a cat or fish. Or even in vending machines.

If you got bad luck don’t worry! The tradition is to fold up the strip of paper and tie it to a pine tree or a wall of metal wires alongside other bad fortunes in the temple or shrine grounds. A purported reason for this custom is a pun on the word for pine tree (松 matsu) and the verb ‘to wait’ (待つ matsu), the idea being that the bad luck will wait by the tree rather than attach itself to the bearer.

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