Japanese Fortunes and Luck: Ema and Omikuji

Aside from washing your hands and praying, there are a few fortune-related activities one can partake in at a traditional Shinto Shrine or Buddhist Temple: Hanging an Ema and braving the Omikuji. For your consideration, here is a brief primer on each as they relate to my personal experiences visiting many, many different Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples across Japan.

Ema (Wooden Blocks)

These you can find at both Shinto and Buddhist temples, but you’ll mainly see them adorning small fences or complete walkways at Shinto shrines. The name literally means “picture horse,” referring back in history to when people would offer horses to the gods as gifts for good fortune. Nowadays, I can’t imagine this practice is too popular or practical. Enter these wooden blocks with pictures of horses and other animals!

You purchase one and write your wish on the back. Once you’ve done that, you hang it at the shrine so that the gods can receive your wish. They come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and orientations. Most people will write their wish, name, and address on the Ema, but some people just write their wish and name, or even a pseudonym and general prefecture/state/city. Some are decorated very elaborately by the artistically inclined and finding those is a real treat as you browse the massive Ema boards at temples. There’s usually a dedicated area where you can peek at these wishes. At Hikawa Shrine in Kawagoe, for example, they made a tunnel of Ema you can walk through and take some pretty nice photos in!

Priest and Ema - Two Second Street - www.twosecondstreet.com
A priest walks through the Ema tunnel to collect fallen plaques and tie them back up.

You might be wondering what the shrines do with these hundreds, if not thousands, of wooden blocks they’ve accumulated. Well, they burn them! Temples will have a special ritual where they burn the Ema that have accumulated. This happens around Hatsumode, or the first temple visit. They burn these to send the wishes to the gods directly, much like what they do with Daruma. The burning also happens around the same time of the year, usually around the first half of January.

Omikuji (O-mikuji, or fortune telling)

Omikuji is the fortunetelling you can get done at Shinto Shrines (and most Buddhist Temples; this seems to be more of a Japan activity versus a strictly Shinto activity). Most work where you shake a large cylinder full of sticks with numbers on them. Through a small opening in the top of the cylinder, you pull out the stick to read the number written on the side. From their, you either find your number from a rack or the helpful shrine worker will hand you the fortune. If you’re fortune is good, you keep it with you so you can keep those good vibes.

If you get a bad fortune, however, you need to dispel those bad vibes. You do so by tying your bad fortune to a designated area on the temple grounds. By tying the bad fortune and leaving it at the temple, you help to improve your luck overall.

Fish Omikuji - Two Second Street - www.twosecondstreet.com

Sometimes, you get variations on the tradition: During the spring and summer at Hikawa Shrine in Kawagoe, I saw a game where you catch a toy fish with the fortune inside of it. Each shrine (especially if they’re larger or a specialty shrine, or if it’s during a special event) may put their own spin on Omikuji. Larger or more popular shrines will also offer English fortunes, in case you’re kanji isn’t the best.

All the money you spend on either of these activities helps out the shrine, so if you want to donate and have a little fun, these activities a nice way to participate in a small part of the culture.

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