O-mikuji (御御籤, 御神籤, or おみくじ o-mikuji) are random fortunes written on strips of paper at Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples in Japan. Literally “sacred lot“, these are usually received by making a small offering (generally a five-yen coin as it is considered good luck, or 100 yen or more if that is indicated on a sign near the omikuji) and randomly choosing one from a box, hoping for the resulting fortune to be good. (As of 2011 coin-slot machines sometimes dispense o-mikuji.)
The o-mikuji is scrolled up or folded, and unrolling the piece of paper reveals the fortune written on it. It includes a general blessing which can be anyone of the following:
- Great blessing (dai-kichi, 大吉)
- Middle blessing (chū-kichi, 中吉)
- Small blessing (shō-kichi, 小吉)
- Blessing (kichi, 吉)
- Half-blessing (han-kichi, 半吉)
- Future blessing (sue-kichi, 末吉)
- Future small blessing (sue-shō-kichi, 末小吉)
- Curse (kyō, 凶)
- Small curse (shō-kyō, 小凶)
- Half-curse (han-kyō, 半凶)
- Future curse (sue-kyō, 末凶)
- Great curse (dai-kyō, 大凶)
It then lists fortunes regarding specific aspects of one’s life, which may include any number of the following among other possible combinations:
- 方角 (hōgaku) – auspicious/inauspicious directions
- 願事 (negaigoto) – one’s wish or desire
- 待人 (machibito) – a person being waited for
- 失せ物 (usemono) – lost article(s)
- 旅立ち (tabidachi) – travel
- 商い (akinai) – business dealings
- 學問 (gakumon) – studies or learning
- 相場 (sōba) – market speculation
- 爭事 (arasoigoto) – disputes
- 戀愛 (renai) – romantic relationships
- 転居 (tenkyo) – moving or changing residence
- 出產 (shussan) – childbirth, delivery
- 病気 (byōki) – illness
- 縁談 (endan) – marriage proposal or engagement
What will an omikuji tell you?
The o-mikuji predicts the person’s chances of his or her hopes coming true, of finding a good match, or generally matters of health, fortune, life, etc. When the prediction is bad, it is a custom to fold up the strip of paper and attach 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. In the event of the fortune being good, the bearer has two options: he or she can also tie it to the tree or wires so that the fortune has a greater effect or he or she can keep it for luck. Generally it is advisable to keep the good omikuji for good luck and keep it on your person for at least a year or for as long as the omikuji needs to come true. A wallet or purse is the best place to save your omikuji as you generally have that with you nearly every day. Omikuji are available at most shrines, and remain one of the traditional activities related to shrine-going. English versions are often times also available or sometimes a Japanese version is written on one side and an English version on the other side.
Another famous custom that is performed at shrines or temples is the writing a prayer or wish on a specially-prepared wooden block (votive board) called an ema, which is then tied to a board. Often times there will be a sacret place where you can hang the votive boards, next to a holy tree for instance.
The history of ema boards
Long ago, animal sacrifice was practiced at Shinto shrines in Japan, with horses being the first-class item. Because they were pretty expensive and out of the reach of most people, there gradually arose a custom of sacrificing artistic representations of horses instead of the real thing. These were known as “ema” or “picture horses.” A kind of votive tablet. At first, ema were large and expensive works of art, but through the centuries they became smaller and cheaper. They also became so popular that they are now used at Buddhist temples as well as Shinto shrines.
Today, the typical ema is a thin wooden board about 15cm wide with a picture of a horse stamped onto it. In addition to the original horse theme, you can also buy ema with the animal of the year on it. Now it is 2013 so it is the year of the snake so you will often find Omikuji with snakes on the back or a picture specific to the temple like for instance the deity that resides at the temple. After purchasing an ema, the petitioner writes his or her prayer on the blank area next to the picture or at the back and hangs it up on an outdoor pegboard.
Since they are on public display, you can indulge in spiritual voyeurism by reading other people’s prayers.
What happens to the ema?
The ema will not stay on their special peg indefinitely. Once in a while (depending on how often the pegs are filled to capacity) the ema will be taken down by a priest. The ema are collected and a special sacrificial fire is built. The priest then performs a special ritual to make sure all the wishes go up to the deity that lives in the temple shrine and he will ask the deity to grant the wishes of the petitioners.
Chinese fortune cookies
The random fortunes in Chinese fortune cookies are most likely derived from o-mikuji; this is claimed by Seiichi Kito of Fugetsu-Do, and supported by evidence that (American) fortune cookies come from 19th century Kyoto cookies that have been adapted by the Chinese to suit the American interests.