Omamori: How Japanese People Physically Give Each Other Well-Wishes
Walking amongst the many stalls at shrines and temples in Japan is always an eye-opening affair. There's an unexpected fervor as little trinkets, whether they be beads, small cloth packets, or even small notes, seem to be sold to the general public. More than just a way to raise funds for the shrine or temple, those little trinkets, or "omamori," are readily gobbled up by visitors at large for their luck-bestowing properties. In this article, we'll explain what exactly omamori are and what they are used for, as well as introduce some of the more interesting good luck charms you can buy in Japan.
Apr 15 2021 (Apr 19 2021)
What Is an Omamori Charm?
Found sorted into little boxes, hanging from stands, or behind glass partitions, the sheer variety of omamori is astounding. Traditionally found at Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, "omamori" are Japanese amulets of protection. Inside an omamori is a small written prayer designed to bestow protection upon the bearer, like a good luck charm.
Although there are a large number of forms an omamori can take, most are a simple cloth packet on a string that contains (and more importantly hides) the main prayer. These are then easily stowed away in wallets or hung from purses and backpacks. No matter the occasion or event, chances are there are omamori out there to protect you against it.
The History of Omamori
Where exactly do omamori come from? The word 御守り (omamori) itself describes their purpose quite clearly, being broken up into the bits 御 (“oh,” an honorific) and 守り (“mamori,” to protect). The emergence of omamori in Japanese society is a bit complicated, if only due to the intermixed nature of Japanese religion. However, they’re largely derived from the Buddhist tradition of selling amulets.
This tradition was adopted in Japan quite late, around the 17th century, when both Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines picked up on the practice and started to make and sell their own protection amulets. Originally a small wooden box with the prayer hidden inside, they served both as an offering to the temple or shrine as well as a portable protection spell against bad luck or other devious circumstances.
Omamori have changed a lot since their growth in popularity during the 18th and 19th centuries. Nowadays, the most common omamori take the form of cloth pouches. These pouches are usually no bigger than a credit card and contain the prayer tucked away within.
There are other kinds of omamori too, such as those that take the form of what they're protecting against, looking more like a small charm. Charms skip the prayer but are instead infused with good luck by their very nature.
As was the case traditionally, most omamori can be bought at shrines or temples, and a majority of these sites will offer a selection of different kinds for sale. However, due to their enduring popularity, there are also specialty stores across the country (and in some extreme cases, even vending machines!) where you can purchase omamori as well. The prices range from about 200 yen to 500 yen for the fairly basic to over 1000 yen for grander or more involved omamori.
What Are Some Common Omamori?
Omamori for Success
Success omamori (勝守 "kachimamori") are bought or gifted to people with a specific goal in mind, in order to help the user attain that goal. If there's a project that you feel like you could use a little divine help with, this is the omamori to choose.
Omamori for Protection From Evil
In the opposite vein to success, omamori for protection from evil (厄除け, "yakuyoke") help the user avoid negative consequences or events. There is also the common 開運除災 ("kaiun josai") omamori which helps improve one's luck during a year deemed to be unlucky based on a person's age. If it's your unlucky year or there's something you're worried about, this might be a good omamori to choose.
Omamori to Bring Wealth
People nestle the prosperous business omamori (商売繁盛, "shobai hanjo") or economic fortune omamori (金運上昇 "kinun josho") in their wallets or hang them from handbags to help stave off unnecessary spending or to help increase income. If you're in need of some monetary luck, one of these might be the omamori for you.
Omamori for Education
Some of the most popular omamori are those for helping with success in education. These include the omamori for passing a test (合格守り "gokaku mamori") or the omamori for achieving your academic goals (学業成就 "gakugyo jojyu"). One of the omamori we introduce later is for kids starting school and is in the shape of a grade-schooler's backpack!
Omamori for Health
For those worried about health, some common omamori include the prayer for health (健康祈願 "kenko kigan"), omamori for healing (病気平癒 "byoki heiyu"), and omamori for longevity (長寿祈願 "choju kigan"). Keep one of these omamori with you for a healthy life.
Omamori for Traffic Safety
The most specific of the common bunch, Traffic Safety is designed to be hung and placed within a person’s car to ward off possible accidents. Students hoping to obtain their driver’s license will also often purchase or receive a Traffic Safety omamori to help them through the test.
Omamori for a Safe and Successful Birth
Another popular omamori is the 安産祈願 ("anzan kigan"), which is to help a woman have a safe and successful birth. This is a very nice gift to give to a pregnant friend or family member.
How To Use Omamori
Where Do You Put Omamori?
Like most good luck charms, omamori are designed to be bought and then left alone, carried with you as a reminder to their power but otherwise undisturbed. Omamori can be bought for oneself, or given as a gift for a friend or family member, where they serve as a physical form of a well-wish.
Students might receive an education omamori as a gift for getting into high school, or an entrepreneur a money-protection omamori upon starting a business. There’s no specific way to carry omamori with you, and people will do everything from tying them to their bags to stashing them away in their gloveboxes. As long as you know where it is, the omamori is said to function.
As for cleanliness, it’s probably good practice not to be too rough with your omamori, but it’s okay if they get a bit dirty or worn over the course of their usage. This means that the omamori is doing its job: the older and more worn, the more protection it has dished out. After more significant incidents like spills, you should carefully wash it by hand (never in a washing machine!).
How Do I Get Rid of Omamori?
Omamori do not expire officially, but it's common to keep them for around one year. Some shrines and temples in Japan offer an omamori return service, where you can turn in older and more beaten-up omamori so that they can be disposed of properly by the religious staff, i.e. burned in a special ceremony.
Don't Look Inside an Omamori!
An important hard and fast rule is to never open an omamori, which contains a prayer within. If you open it up and peek inside, the prayer loses all power and the luck of the charm becomes effectively inert. Omamori derive part of their power from the mystery of the unknown, with the user never knowing exactly what’s inside. Once the user knows for sure (by opening the packet), all that mystery and faith vanishes and with it the protective power it gives.
This interaction between mystery and faith is key to the functioning of the omamori, as the relationship isn’t one-sided. Omamori should not be thought of as purely protective spells, or armor if you would, against bad or unfortunate events. Rather, in tandem with the mystery and faith, the other part of the omamori’s power is derived from the user themselves.
Omamori serve as a reminder to drive safer, to concentrate on your studies, think through financial decisions, or to remember to make healthy choices. The omamori won’t do these things for you; rather, by staying with you at all times, they help you accomplish these goals. Like a sticky note at the top of your laptop, omamori are contained, portable reminders to live your life better and to have faith that effort sprinkled with a dash of good luck may be all you need to succeed in your endeavours.
Top 9 Most Unique Omamori You Can Find in Japan
We have already made an article in the past with 8 noteworthy omamori that you should collect. Here are 9 more items that are meaningful and often cute!
1. Cyber Security Omamori
Shaped like a circuit board and even containing small microcontroller-esque patches, the Cyber Security omamori protects you and your information from theft online and ensures the smooth functioning of all your equipment. They can be found at Tokyo's Kanda Shrine, which has a history dating back nearly 1,300 years (although we are told that this omamori did not exist back then).
2. Dog Omamori
An ancient shrine in Nagoya is home to a beloved stone statue of a dog, which is a symbol of successful birth in Shinto. Pregnant mothers come to the shrine to touch the belly of the statue and receive blessings for a safe delivery, and then take home a unique and cute and unique dog omamori! A little bell in the shape of the shrine's dog statue fits into a little pocket on the front of the omamori, making it a great gift!
Legend has it that the shrine was created more than 1,300 years ago and that its history has always been intertwined with dogs: a nearby town was protected from deadly floods thanks to a monk who made a "gohei" (a shinto wand attached with paper streamers) with a picture of a dog and the words "inu no ou" (dog king) hidden inside. That monk would, upon his return to this spot, announce the establishment of this new shrine.
Interestingly, the shrine is called Inu Shrine, but the name actually refers to the main deity worshipped there (Inu Hime No Kami) not "inu" (the Japanese word for dog).
3. Kumano Full Moon Festival Omamori
This omamori is one of the more rare offerings in Japan, and can only be found at the Kumano Shrine in Yamagata Prefecture. Every month on the full moon, the shrine holds a special prayer festival, after which attendees (and nobody else!) can buy this extremely unique handmade omamori (shown to the right of the rabbit in the photo above). Rather than the traditional omamori, these look like an intricately tied piece of twine, a physical representation of a love knot. Each month, these omamori are made in a different color, so the one that you get will really be quite rare.
4. Love Protection Omamori
The love knot is a popular offering at many shrines across Japan, but Kano Shrine in Yokosuka has a very unique version that mimics its own unique geography. Split into two, Kano Shrine has a western and eastern end, divided by Uraga Bay. A ferry is required to get from one end to the other. At the western end, one can buy a comma-shaped gemstone (an ancient Japanese symbol called a "magatama"), and on the eastern end, the cloth sachet to place the gemstone in. Once complete, it will help protect the love between a couple.
5. Holy Water Omamori
Sold at Shimogamo Shrine in Kyoto, this omamori is a bead containing the water of Mitarai Pond, which is said to bring health benefits and protection to those who dip their feet into it. Carry this with you to ward off illnesses and to help encourage healthy living! It could also make for an awesome and inexpensive souvenir from Kyoto!
6. Rice Ball Omamori
Takamimusubi is the spirit of agriculture and growth, and therefore encourages fulfillment. His name, fortunately, coincides with a very popular Japanese snack—omusubi, or rice balls. Not one to pass up on some witty word play, Takagi Shrine, where Takamimusubi is the enshrined deity, created a variety of rice ball-themed omamori, including the cute one shown in the photo above. If you know someone who's a fan of musubi, this makes for a great gift!
7. Watermelon Omamori
Not every omamori needs to be specific to a certain cause; some are simply there for general luck while also looking cute or collectible. Hasedera in Kamakura sells, among other adorable omamori, a small watermelon slice on a string. (It seems to be a cutesy pun: watermelon is "suika," which the temple says can signify "suisui kaiun": "suisui" meaning swiftly or smoothly, and "kaiun" meaning better luck.) Carry it with you to improve your condition, or alternately, mentally cool off on those hot summer days.
8. Chigibako Omamori
"Chigi-bako" first popped up in the Edo Period (1603 - 1868), when they were children's toys sold at shrine festivals. They take the form of three boxes shaped like old Japanese coins stacked on top of one another and bound with string. Each is filled with small beans so the toy rattles when shaken, and it is painted with purple wisteria flowers. Today, they are no longer common items, more or less restricted to the omamori counter.
The shape of old Japanese coins is intended to be lucky in itself, but it's additionally lucky because "chigi" sounds like "a thousand pieces of clothing." In short, it's another way of wishing for prosperity - wishing that you'll never be short of things to wear. Women in particular would keep this omamori by their chest of drawers.
This very unique item can only be found at Tokyo's Shiba Daijingu Shrine.
9. School Backpack Omamori
Perhaps the most adorable omamori on this list, school backpack omamori like this can actually be found at a number of shrines in Japan, but the one in the photo above is from a beautiful shrine on Osaka's Mt. Myoken. No bigger than your thumb, these grade-schooler backpacks can be given to a child to help inspire academic success in school or on tests (but we won't tell anyone if you decide to keep it for yourself!).
Find the Perfect Omamori For Your Life!
Whether you’re buying them for yourself or gifting them to a friend or family member, omamori serve as the perfect small thing to not only remember your trip to/stay in Japan, but also to help you remember to live your life better. Through their own sort of mysterious power, omamori can and will inspire you to look after yourself. Whether it's the little satchel on your wallet helping you rein in your spending, or the bead hanging from your rear-view mirror reminding you to double-check the intersection before going, omamori are here to help.
If you're traveling Japan with a significant other (or alternately, if you're looking for that special someone), this article has 30 more omamori that are meant to help you on that journey! Alternately, if you're aiming for omamori from noteworthy shrines, here are some shrines and temples in Tokyo and Osaka.
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Title image: waychen_c / Flickr
The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.