Monday 31 December 2018

Omikuji Fortune Papers and Ema Wooden Wish Plaques

2019 is here and, as I wrote this time last year, for most Japanese that means a visit to a shrine (or temple) to make prayers and wishes for the new year, a practice known as hatsumōde (初詣). Made up of the characters for "first" and "make a pilgrimage", this "first visit" can be anytime from the evening of December 31st up until January 7th (a period known as matsu-no-uchi =松の内). Matsu means pine and pine decorations are ubiquitous on gates and doors at this time of year (pine, like bamboo, is said to symbolise longevity and strength/hardiness). The most popular shrines, such as Meiji Jingu in Shibuya, are packed for the first three days of the year when most Japanese are off work.
Prayers and wishes for the new year can be made spiritually after bowing and clapping at the shrine but they can also be made in more material fashion by purchasing a cheap fortune paper known as an omikuji or a more expensive ema (絵馬=horse picture) wooden plaque. The latter cost around 500 to 700 yen and your wish or message is written on it directly before being hung (in public!) at the shrine (as seen in the picture). Eventually they are ritually burned at special events symbolising one's "liberation" from the wish. In contrast, the omikuji folded fortune paper might set you back 100 or 200 yen and, as the name suggests (kuji literally means lottery), you can get any of (up to) twelve ranging from great blessing (dai-kichi =大吉) to great curse (dai-kyō =大凶). The message on the omikuji resembles a horoscope and usually refers to love, money, health, study, or travel.

There seems to be two camps about what to do precisely with your omikuji after unfolding the paper itself. Some people say that if it is one of the (up to seven) blessings you should hold on to it but if you are unlucky enough to get one of the (up to five) curses you should tie it to a designated place or even tree branch at the shrine (a pine branch is supposed to be auspicious because bad luck is said to "wait" - also matsu in Japanese - at the shrine rather than follow you home). Others people, however, always leave their omikuji tied at the shrine regardless of whether it is good or bad. Those who take home their lucky paper see it as a message from god and therefore consider it important to keep the paper in one's wallet or purse as a  guiding principle (shishin =指針)  or "compass needle of fate" in daily life. In contrast, those who tie their paper at the shrine, whether it is good or bad, do this because they believe it brings a stronger connection to the kami. Advice can differ from shrine to shrine: see here for a good explanation (in Japanese) entitled "Should I tie the omikuji?" (おみくじを結んだ方がいいですか)from the famous Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine (太宰府天満宮) in Fukuoka. For a detailed explanation of how to buy an omikuji see here - or check out the video below!