Every Japan itinerary usually includes a visit to a temple or shrine or two. But they’re often not top of the kids’ and teens’ lists of must-sees. Once the younger travellers find out there is fortune telling at a Japanese temple or shrine, they may be a bit more keen to visit. In this post, I outline the fun tradition of omikuji – a form of fortune-telling that’s commonly found at Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines right across Japan.
Astrology, tea-leaf reading, aura photography…I’m a sucker for all those superstitious traditions to predict the future! Not that any of the predictions ever seem to come true…I just love the process. So when I found out about omikuji (おみくじ) at Japanese temples and shrines, I was game to give it a go.
Omikuji is basically a process whereby you make a small donation, and receive a random slip of paper on which your fortune is written. There’s lots of variations in how the process works from one temple/shrine to the next, so I’ll focus the steps below on how it worked at Sensō-ji Temple in Asakusa in Tokyo, as that was where I took the most photos. (Of course, we did Omikuji at almost every temple and shrine we visited in Japan!)
Find a sign which says おみくじ (Omikuji)
This will show you the area where the fortunes are kept. At Sensō-ji Temple there were clear instructions in English as well as Japanese. These omikuji were selected via bamboo sticks in a metal container, but some places have straws or tiles or dice to roll.
Pay the cost in coins
There was a slot to deposit the coins in. It was an honour system, and I didn’t see anyone abusing the system. I’d imagine that would be instant bad luck if you did.
Get your number
I had to shake the hexagonal metal container, then tip it upside down for a bamboo stick to drop out. A stick which is marked with a number. I say number, but it is in fact written in kanji. (Oh, and yes, I shook the box politely.)
Find the drawer/box that matches your number
It took all our finest kindergarten matching pairs skills to work out which drawer matched our wooden sticks. Once we’d found it, we returned the stick to the container.
Open the drawer and get your fortune
Open the matching drawer, and inside there is a pile of printed fortunes. (At some temples or shrines, you will hand your stick/straw/dice over to an attendant who will give you the matching fortune.)
At the Sensō-ji Temple in Asakusa the fortunes were written in both English and Japanese, but that isn’t always the case. The omikuji have fortunes that bring predict the full gamut of luck from great to bad. I tended to always draw out fortunes that said stuff like “Regular Fortune”.
Oh well, there’s nothing wrong with being regular. 🙂
Oh no! My fortune is bad. What should I do now?
Do not fear. If you have bad luck in your future, it is actually lucky that you found out via an omikuji, because you now have the chance to do something about it. Traditionally, unlucky omikuji are tied to the branches of a tree in the temple or shrine grounds, which ties the bad luck there instead of following you home. So you could see the omikuji as a preventative measure for bad luck which may have been about to strike.
As an alternative to trees, many temples/shrines have dedicated racks for the restraining of your bad luck (like the one photographed, which was at Sanjusangendo Temple in Kyoto).
If you have good fortune coming your way, you should put the omikuji into your pocket, wallet or handbag and take it with you.
A win-win fortune
What I particularly love about the Sensouji Temple omijuki instructions is how they caution visitors not to be careless or arrogant if you draw a good fortune, and not to fear if you draw a bad fortune, but rather to be modest and gentle and know that in actual fact, we all carve our own fortune. So, for the sum of 100 yen the temple is saying… our future is all up to us. We just need to tenaciously do our best. The temple makes money (win!) and we are reassured that we are masters of our own destiny no matter what the omijuki says (win!).
And what about all those small wooden ornaments you see hanging about at shrines?
Those ‘ornaments’ are called ema (絵馬?) and are actually wooden plaques on which Shinto believers write their prayers/hopes/wishes. They are then left hanging up on dedicated racks at the shrine where they are received by the gods.
They are very attractive, especially en masse, and are often in the shape of (or carry decorations of) imagery relating to that particular shrine.
The ema are purchased at the shrine (where the money goes towards the shrine funding), and the wishes/prayers written on them range from success in work or on exams, marital happiness, to have children, and good health or safe travels. Some shrines specialize in certain types of wishes/prayers, and sometimes there are more than one type available at bigger shrines.
The word ema is a combination of the characters for picture and horse, and has its origins in a time when people would donate their horses to a shrine to transport their wishes to the gods, in the hope that the gods would be more kindly disposed to hearing said prayers. Over time, horses became prohibitively expensive, so they were replaced with the wooden plaques, and as a result, many ema are decorated with images of horses.
Once you’ve purchased the ema, there are pens nearby that you can write your wish/prayer onto it with.
I didn’t purchase any ema at shrines, but I did buy some little good luck charms to take home with us. They also come in a range of specialties – exam success, good health, business success etc.
It’s good to have all options covered!
How’s your fortune looking?
Want to refer to this post later? Pin the image below to Pinterest!