What draws people to Japanese shrines and temples? First, if it’s called a ‘shrine’ it’s a home of the Shinto religion. And if it’s called a ‘temple’ it’s a place of Buddhism. So just by this distinction alone, you’ll be able to discover certain differences and unique points between the two, so we recommend always having at least one of each in mind to visit, just to get the full experience. Japanese people as well generally don’t fall into strictly one category. Rather, Japanese tradition tends to embrace both Shinto & Buddhist teachings and customs.
Additionally, many shrines & temples are a look into history as many popular ones tend to be a couple hundred years old, rich with history and interesting origin stories. And of course we can’t fail to mention how many of these sacred spaces are within green, verdant areas that are great for a stroll with family or friends.
Our biggest recommendation though, for any shrine or temple that you visit, is to be sure to check out the lucky charms that each individual one has. Once you know the different types, what kinds of luck they can purportedly bring, and the sometimes cute and unique designs that they have, you’ll love keeping an eye out for these!
We also recommend trying to visit during the New Year’s season for the first shrine or temple visit of the year, called ‘hatsumode’.
Omikuji are the classic style of fortune that you cannot miss when you make your visit! They generally do require some Japanese language knowledge, but some at the larger shrines in big cities like Tokyo or Kyoto include English translations on them too. Either way, they are generally nicely designed and quite exquisite looking.
What makes omikuji interesting is that they’re so detailed. The little slip of paper offers predictions on love, health, dreams, and luck for the upcoming year. There are standardized levels of luck as well that one may receive.
大吉 – Daikichi – Excellent luck
吉 – Kichi – Good luck
末吉 – Suekichi – Uncertain luck
凶 – Kyou – Bad luck
大凶 – Daikyou – Very bad luck
If you draw a fortune that isn’t particularly lucky, you may fold it up and tie it to a designated pine tree or wooden bar so that the bad luck won’t attach itself to you. If you draw a very lucky omikuji, however, it’s common to take the paper with you to use as a good luck charm.
This is another classic, and many people keep them on their keys, in their cars, on their backpacks, or decorated in their room. ‘Mamori’ basically means ‘protection’ or ‘care’ and they’re even popular as gifts for friends or loved ones.
In the past, they were made out of paper or even wood, but in present-day you’ll generally find them in the form of small pouches made of soft, quality fabric. In fact, these pouches hold a prayer inside, which are blessed before being sold to the public.
Some popular types of omamori include ones that include a prayer for good grades in school, a healthy childbirth, good luck, safety from evil, protection for cars & travelers, success in business, and success in finding a marriage partner.
Ema are beautiful, double-sided wooden plaques on which visitors can write a wish on the back and hang up at the shrine or temple in order for their wish to come true. The word ’ema’ itself can be translated as ‘horse picture’ and horses are still the most popular designs. Recently though, shrines produce unique illustrations with zodiac animals or famous local sights. There are even blank ema so that visitors may create their own.
If your wish comes true, it’s common practice to revisit the same shrine that you placed the ema at, and either write a new wish on a new plaque or simply say a prayer of gratitude.
In the 8th century, offering a horse to the gods was believed to make a wish come true, as horses were prized as sacred. Nobles used real horses at first but it was a burden to the shrines. Eventually they sculpted true-to-size figures from wood.
Over time, this ritual was simplified and the sculptures became illustrations of horses on large wooden plates, and finally the reasonably sized ema that we know today came to light.
Which of these three lucky charms are your favorite? Let us know in the comments below!
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